In the first of our Euro 2012 exclusives, Australian-born Joey Didulica predicts how Croatia - the nation he represented at international level - will fare at the tournament
By James Ranson
Former goalkeeper Joey Didulica believes the time is now for Croatia's 'golden generation' at Euro 2012 in Poland and the Ukraine.
Didulica made four appearances for Croatia from 2004-2006, making the tough decision to spurn Australia - the country of his birth - after failing to figure in the plans of then-Socceroos coach Frank Farina.
Didulica was among the substitutes against Australia at the 2006 World Cup alongside current stars in Tottenham's Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar, just two years after changing his allegiance.
Didulica [left] talks to back-up Socceroos goalkeeper Ante Covic before the 2006 World Cup group match between the former's Croatia and Australia.
A famous 2-2 draw with Australia saw Croatia bundled out of the 2006 World Cup in the group stage and missed the 2010 tournament.
They did reach the Euro 2008 quarter-finals, but Euro 2012 is when Didulica believes the squad can deliver.
But passage for Croatia will be far from easy, with the Balkan country pitted against the past two World Cup winners Italy and Spain, as well the Republic of Ireland in Group C.
"I think we can [qualify for the knockout stages]," Didulica said.
"I think we will, this is definitely the golden generation of players that can do it for Croatia: Modric is peaking, Kranjcar is at a good age, [Vedran] Corluka as well, even Eduardo and [Ivica] Olic.
"Croatia are blessed, you've still got Modric and Kranjcar so we have those attacking fires... Modric really makes the side tick.
|"... This is definitely the golden generation of players that can do it for Croatia: Modric is peaking, Kranjcar is at a good age, Corluka as well, even Eduardo and Olic."
- Joey Didulica
"A lot of the guys like Modric didn't get the chance to showcase their talents at World Cup 2010 because that was their prime.
"It's two years on now they've played a lot of games, they're not too much older and it's great to be able to see them play in a big tournament."
Didulica played alongside may of Croatia's current stars in a career that was littered with highs and lows, from domestic titles in Holland and Austria to crippling head and neck injuries that eventually curtailed his playing days.
The shot-stopper's career was irrevocably changed when he was involved in a sickening clash with Socceroo and PSV midfielder Jason Culina while playing in an Eredivisie match for AZ Alkmaar shortly after the 2006 World Cup.
Didulica suffered months of amnesia and crippling headaches as a result, but remarkably returned to win his second Eredivisie title, with AZ in 2008-09, to go with his maiden triumph with Ajax in 2001-02.
The 34-year-old remembers fondly the move that transformed his career when he landed a contract with Dutch giants Ajax in 1999 from then-NSL club Melbourne Knights.
"I've been fortunate to have some of the best coaches in the world," Didulica recounted.
"Great coaches like Ronald Koeman who expected a lot. It wasn't only winning but you had to win in style."
Just years after Ajax had won the Champions League, Didulica found himself among stars like the de Boer brothers, Edwin van der Sar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Nigel de Jong.
Slavan Bilic's Croatia have adopted a similar mentality and, while their star midfielders make the side tick, Didulica believes the added firepower up front - Eduardo, Everton's Nikica Jelavic and Bayern Munich's Olic - are capable of big returns.
"I think there's a plethora of strikers coming out of the generation with Jelavic and you've got Olic," he said.
"I know he's been coming off the bench for Bayern but he's a prolific scorer in the national team."
Add to that mix Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk star Nikola Kalinic, and Bilic's squad has an imposing look about it - particularly in the front third.
"Kalinic, if he gets the opportunity to play, is one to watch, he can score goals," Didulica said.
"Hopefully he can now have a standout tournament and get on the radar of some of the bigger clubs."
Former Blackburn Rovers frontman Kalinic is one of five players in the squad playing his club football in Ukraine - one of the co-hosts of the tournament - along with captain Darijo Srna [Shakhtar Donetsk, pictured right], Ivan Strinic [Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk], Ognjen Vukojevic [Dynamo Kiev] and Eduardo [Shakhtar].
That factor may have a positive effect later in the tournament, but all three of Croatia's group games will be played in Poland; against Ireland and Italy in Poznan and lastly against reigning champions Spain in Gdansk.
"I think we'll have no problem getting past Ireland," Didulica said.
"They are strong at home and passionate but it's a game Croatia has to take three points from, we have too much striking power.
"We've got a better system, playing the ball on the ground, and we can get nasty because we've got some physical boys in there like Mario Madzukic, and Ivan Strinic at the back."
Italy and Spain will be another story altogether, but Didulica believes the 2006 world champions were not the force they once, were with the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo in the twilight of their careers.
"We're traditionally quite good against Italy, we always come in as the underdog but we've given them a lot of grief in the past," Didulica said of their second opponents.
"And, for Croatia it's great that we play Spain third, for Croatia, confidence is a huge factor so hopefully we'll have that six points by the time we play them."
Croatia faces Group C rivals Ireland on June 10, Italy on June 14 before their final group game with Spain on June 18.