Heading into their game with Italy, Croatia proudly sit top of Group C ahead of the Azzurri and reigning European champions Spain. Slaven Bilic's side were convincing in their 3-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland, putting a serious dent in the Boys in Green's hopes of reaching the knockout stages.
|CROATIA'S DEFENSIVE CHAOS
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
|19'||GOOOOAAAAAAL FOR IRELAND!!! Simple as you like! Aiden McGeady floats a free kick to the back post and Sean St Ledger gets the wrong side of Corluka to head home!! 1-1!|
|63'||Penalty shout for Ireland!! Robbie Keane appears to turn Schildenfeld on the edge of the box but goes down under the challenge of the defender! The referee waves play on and Keane is furious with the official!|
But still, an equally dark shadow looms over the team heading into their crunch encounter on Thursday. Defensively, Bilic's side were poor. At times in the first half, they were in fact shocking.
On paper, the inclusion of Tottenham defender Vedran Corluka looked like a no-brainer. Dependable, versatile and hard-working - all words appropriate in describing the player who spent the second half of last season on loan in the Bundesliga with Leverkusen.
However, the 26-year-old has had a campaign to forget. Making only 14 starts for Spurs and Leverkusen combined, the former Dinamo Zagreb man struggled for fitness, picking up a constant string of niggly injuries.
There were even doubts whether Corluka would make the Ireland game due to a knock, yet the defender was chosen to partner Gordon Schildenfeld over the experienced Josip Simunic; playing alongside the Eintracht Frankfurt man at centre-half for only the second time.
Together, the duo looked slow, clumsy and prone to lapses in concentration on many occasions. Corluka's inept marking was the reason behind Sean St Ledger's goal for Ireland while Schildenfeld's late challenge on Robbie Keane in the second period should have resulted in a penalty.
With Italy having the likes of Antonio Cassano, Antonio Di Natale and Mario Balotelli at their disposal, Bilic needs to think long and hard over his defensive selections. Simunic may be lacking pace but his positioning and reading of the game could be key against the Azzurri's tricky attackers, not to mention his 95 caps providing priceless experience to a backline looking a little clueless on Sunday.
If Bilic can fix his defensive frailties, then three points against Cesare Prandelli's men is certainly a possibility, especially when you take into consideration Croatia's record versus the Italians. Since the Balkan nation's independence two decades ago, Italy have not earned a win against the Vatreni in five attempts, recording three defeats and two draws.
However, if the group leaders fail to up their defensive game, there will be goals aplenty for the Azzurri, make no doubt about that. It's judgement day for Corluka and Co. If they buck their ideas up, they could be in the quarter finals with a game to spare. If not, then a win over the favourites Spain may be needed.