Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb
11th October, 17:00 BST
Belgium travel to Croatia for their Group A clash of World Cup 2014 qualifying round this Friday. The Belgians lead Group A with 22 points from eight games. With two games to go, Belgium know that all they need is a draw to secure World Cup qualification ahead of their final game against Wales next week. However, they will be careful not to lose top spot to the hosts. Croatia, on the other hand, know that they will finish at least second in the group no matter what they do in their last two Group A games. However, they will be looking to defeat the Belgians on their home turf in front of their fans to gain automatic qualification for Brazil.
Team News and Tactics
The 0-1 defeat to Scotland dashed their hopes of automatic qualification and now they will need to beat the Belgians to have any hopes of qualifying top of Group A. Confidence seems to be low in the Croatian camp, however, with former Tottenham Hotspur defender Vedran Corluka admitting the atmosphere surrounding the team was poor. Beating the talented Belgian side is a huge ask of the Croatians, who will hope their passionate fans can turn the game in their favour.
Centre back Josip Simunic is also missing through suspension and coach Igor Stimac would look for inspiration from the other defenders to keep the Belgians out on Friday. Stimac also lamented the misfortune that nobody in the group could take advantage of the recent dip in the Belgian side’s form:
“The Belgians are quick and skillful but they had a dip in form and unfortunately for us, their opponents did not take advantage of that.”
“The atmosphere in the dressing room is still good but it’s a poor one around it because Belgium are firmly in the driving seat and that’s where we wanted to be at this stage,” Corluka was quoted as saying by Croatian media.
“There is no point in looking back at what might have been but I think that although the Belgians are a class act, they are not better than us. We showed that in Brussels and we will show that in Zagreb too.”
Expected Starting Line Up: Pletikosa; Corluka, Srna, Lovren, Strinic; Vukojevic, Modric, Eduardo, Olic, Rakitic; Mandzukic
The Belgians are tipped to get the point they need to top Group A. however they will have to do it without defender Vincent Kompany and striker Christian Benteke. Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku, who is on loan at Everton, is likely to replace Benteke, while Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen is a doubt ahead of the trip to Croatia.
On the bright side, Marouane Fellaini is fit to play for the Belgians after his wrist surgery was pushed to December. Fellaini participated in training on Tuesday and will feature in Croatia with a protective cast. Belgium coach Marc Wilmots assured fans that their team would be going for a win despite needing just a draw to qualify. Wilmots joked:
“If I told my players that I wanted to play defensively for a draw they would cut my head off,”
“Why wait if we can qualify immediately? This is our philosophy and we are not counting on a second chance against Wales because we are going to Croatia to win,” he said.
Spurs centre back Jan Verthongen told reporters:
“You don’t get much rest these days and that can lead to injuries, but fortunately our squad is large enough to cope and we proved that (in a 2-0 away win) against Scotland (last month),” Spurs centre back Vertonghen told Belgian television.
“Friday is a chance to seal qualification and we shouldn’t let it pass. We can measure up to Croatia and although we will have to be at our best to get even a draw, we are going for a win.”
Expected Starting Line Up: Courtois; Alderweireld, Van Buyten, Verthonghen, Lombaerts; Witsel, Fellaini, Defour; Chadli, Lukaku, Mertens
Player to Watch out For
The Belgians need just a point to qualify for Europe. Knowing this, the Belgians will try to be strong defensively to close out any potential threat from the Croatians. With Kompany and Vermaelen missing, the onus falls on Jan Verthonghen to steer the Belgians on course for the draw. The Spurs defender likes to play the role of the libero, so it will not be surprising to see him charging down the field with the ball, into the opposition half from time to time.
Croatia 1-1 Belgium
Blast From the Past
We look at this reverse fixture in Group A played at Brussels in September 2012, which ended 1-1.