London — World Cup glory beckons for Croatian stars such as Luka Modric after several traumatic experiences at major tournaments, says their former coach Slaven Bilic.
The charismatic 49-year-old — who is in Russia as a TV pundit for English broadcaster ITV — told the Daily Mail Modric and fellow superstar Ivan Rakitic would pose problems for England in their World Cup semi-final on Wednesday they have not had to encounter thus far.
"Luka and Rakitic are the best midfield pair in the World Cup," said Bilic. "But don’t under- estimate the rest of the team either. For me, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida have been fantastic centre backs, among the best in the World Cup.
"England will be a different opponent to Denmark, Russia or even Argentina. They really have a lot of pace, like Belgium, and get plenty of numbers forward.
"Croatia will have to plan for that. But Croatia can also cause England problems they haven’t had before."
Bilic, who is a mentor to several of the present squad, including Modric, having nurtured their talent as Croatia’s Under-21 handler before becoming head coach of the national side, said he was confident this team could go one better than he and his teammates did in 1998 and reach the final.
The hosts and eventual champions France came from 1-0 down to beat Croatia 2-1, but Bilic did not emerge with great credit from the game, going down clutching his face as if he had been head-butted by France’s Laurent Blanc, who got red-carded and missed France’s greatest football moment.
Bilic, who is out of work after having been sacked by Premier League side West Ham United last season, experienced some of the highs and the lows with the Croatian players — such as being seconds away from the Euro 2008 semifinals only for Turkey to level and progress on penalties. The Croats suffered a similar late reversal when eventual champions Portugal defeated them in extra-time of the Euro 2016 last 16 clash.
"Those memories are painful and the players realise this is their time," said Bilic.
"They are in the better half of the draw and we have a proper team, full of quality, full of experience. They play for big clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan. And they have this incredible spirit, like England have."
Bilic, who is responsible for persuading Rakitic to play for Croatia rather than his adopted country of Switzerland, was in charge in a previous victory for Croatia over England at Wembley in a Euro 2008 qualifier.
Bilic believes a constant theme in Croatian national sides is they up their game against the historically bigger sides, thus their low-key performances against Denmark and Russia, beating both on penalties, should be disregarded.
"We have always shown we can do well against the big nations. When I played we beat Germany 3-0 at the 1998 World Cup [in the quarterfinals]. At the last Euros, we defeated Spain. We won 3-0 against Argentina a couple of weeks ago. It’s the tighter, uglier games that have been our downfall."