Croatia and Slaven Bilic were on a revenge mission as Turkey, then managed by former AC Milan manager, Fatih Terim denied them the opportunity of qualifying for the semi-finals of Euro 2008 courtesy of a penalty shoot out victory. Despite the fact that Bilic & Corluka played down the revenge aspect of the game, it was the media's own caption of the match-up which only made it more eagerly expected. In Guus Hiddink, the Turks had a manager that had all the experience required at this level. His record with the Netherlands, South Korea, Russia and Australia are only bettered by a select few in world football. Coincidentally, Turkey and Croatia were the teams that prevented him on two separate occasions from collecting a bronze medal at the FIFA World Cup 1998 (Croatia vs. Holland), 2002 (Turkey vs. South Korea).
Turkey did not call up one of its most influential players, Nuri Sahin as they felt it was too early, taking into consideration his recent return from a long term injury lay-off. But they still had the likes of Colin Kazim-Kazim or Kazim Richards as he was referred to during his time in England, Athletico Madrid's Arda Turan, and skipper Hamit Altintop to call upon for needed quality. Croatia on the other hand, had to do without Niko Kranjcar and Mladen Petric, but welcomed back Bayern's Ivica Olic who had been out for a while.
The game started with the Croats on the front foot and it was no surprise when they took the lead courtesy of the enigmatic Olic who benefited from a Mandzukic cut back to stun the home crowd after just 100 seconds. Hiddink was dazed. That wasn't in the book and it all, but punctured their well laid out plans for the game. Plan B had to replace the present one, but it was the same outcome as Mandzukic rose highest to divert a Corluka cross past Volkan Demirel in the Turkish goal. 2-0 after 32 minutes and the tie was seemingly out of reach for Hiddink's men. Turkey didn't carve out one clear cut opportunity with Srna and company limiting them to half chances and long rangers. The first half ended with Croatia holding on to a two goal lead.
The players had barely entered the pitch for the second half when Corluka rose highest to score his team's third and game clinching goal. The match ended with Croatia taking a three goal lead back to Zagreb.
The second leg in Zagreb on Nov 15 was a very dull and shambolic match with eight yellow cards (five for Turkey) issued. Turkey dominated possession (65%), but did absolutely nothing with it. You always had the gut feeling that it was going to be a very impossible mission for the team to defeat Croatia on their home turf and consequently overturn the deficit. The match ended 0-0 with Croatia qualifying for their second consecutive Euro tournament. Modric and co. will hope to improve on their last eight finish achieved in 2008.
ESTONIA-REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Giovanni Trapattoni aka Trap is no stranger to the big occasion. One of the most successful and revered tacticians in world football, he has managed in so many nations and had all the necessary tools to salvage the football situation in Ireland. That is why he was brought to Dublin. His record as manager, especially in European cup competitions can only be equalled by the likes of Ernst Happel and Udo Lattek. He has won at least one trophy everywhere he has been to and was Italy's manager for the '02 World Cup and the European Championships in Portugal two years later.
He was denied by Thierry Henry's cheating tactic in the play-offs for the '10 World cup and he was well aware that the Irish had not won a play-off match or been to any tournament since the 2002 World Cup (reached the second round only to be ousted by Spain on penalties).
The opponent this time was Estonia. The northern European country has been punching above its weight in recent times, beating the much fancied Serbia to the play-off spot in a group that was comfortably won by Italy. Il Trap knew much better than to underestimate the threat they posed.
The first leg was at the Le Coq Arena in Tallinn, Estonia and the coach knew his team had to take something from there to have any hope of making it to their first tournament in 10 long years.
If ROI had known that it would be so easy, they wouldn't have been sweating so much on the fitness of Shane Long, Leon Best and the suspension of Kelvin Doyle. It was a jolly good ride right from when Keith Andrews opened scoring until Robbie Keane scored his 52nd and 53rd international goals to seal a remarkable 4-0 mauling of the hosts right in front of their despondent fans. It was practically a walk in the park for the Irish with Walters also helping himself to an international goal.
The second leg at the Aviva Stadium was only honoured by Estonia probably because they would be sanctioned or charged if they hadn't shown up. There was no way they could have clawed their way back. It would have been the biggest shock since human beings started existing. As predicted, the game ended 1-1 with Konstantin Vassiljev scoring the equalizer for the visitors after Stephen Ward put Trap's men in front. the final whistle heralded the start of wild celebrations for the entire people of the ROI.
For the first time in 23 years (since Euro 88) they are back among the elite of Europe. Trap, Tardelli and co have etched their names in Irish Football History.
CZECH REPUBLIC -MONTENEGRO
Euro 96 runners-up and 2004 semi-finalists sure know their way around in European football. They might no longer boast of the likes of 2003 Ballon d'or winner Pavel Nedved, Karel Pobosky and Jan Koller (all time top scorer with 55 goals in 91 apps), but they have a talented set-up led by former Borussia Dortmund midfield pearl, Tomas Rosicky. Youngsters like Tomas Necid, Vaclav Kadlec, Libor Kozak and Thomas Vaclik have all earned their places in the team, although the latter has to wait for some time, before he can stake a claim to the goalkeeper's gloves because in Petr Cech, Czech have one of the best GKs in the World.
They also have Euro 2004's highest goal scorer, Milan Baros, in their ranks. Although he is now a shadow of his former self, he can still cause untold damage when he is on top of his game. The play-off draw pitched Michal Bilek's men against Montenegro. The small country which broke out from Serbia and Montenegro a few years ago, also possess weapons that are capable of hurting any squad. Individuals like Stevan Jovetic (jo-jo), Simon Vukcevic, and captain/talisman, Mirko Vucinic.
The first leg was hosted by Czech Republic and the venue was the Generali Arena in Prague. The Montenegrins had the better of the early exchanges, but they could not make their dominance count with Vucinic the chief culprit. However, the hosts began to settle and it was only a matter of time before they made their superiority and home advantage count as deep into the second half, Pilar sent a beautiful curler past the surprised Bozovic for 1-0. The first didn't seem to galvanize Montenegro into action and the attacking trio of Vukcevic-jo-jo and Vucinic were lacklustre and couldn't fashion out any real opening. The midfield allowed Rosicky to stride along without pressure and it was the same player who hurt them in injury time with a well taken delivery that ended with Sivok heading Czech to a 2-0 aggregate lead heading into the return leg in Podgorica.
The second leg in Podgorica saw Vucinic and co try all they could to come back from two goals down but their efforts proved abortive as the Czechs sealed passage into the Euro 2012 main draw with a goal from Petr Jiracek-his first for his country in five appearances. 1-0 on the night, 3-0 on agg.
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA - PORTUGAL
Safet Susic labelled himself a prophet and he said it to all those who cared to listen that there will be no repeat of the 2010 play-off loss to Portugal. He had every right to be bullish. In his armoury lay the likes of Zvjezdan Misimovic, Miralem Pjanic, Vedad Ibisevic and of course the most dangerous of them all, Edin Dzeko. Portugal on the other hand, weren't lacking in personnel with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo (arguably the best footballer on Earth), Luis Nani, Helder Postiga, Pepe, Ricky Quaresma, Nuno Gomez, Joao Moutinho etc. It promised to be an exciting duel.
The first game in Bosnia was marred by fans chanting Messi's name obviously to annoy and unsettle Ronaldo dos Santos. They even went the extra mile of directing lasers at his eyes. He couldn't stomach it anymore, so he gave them his middle finger.
The pitch was nothing to write home about. It is about the worst pitch in Europe. Despite all the complaints made by the Portuguese players and officials, UEFA didn't blink. The game went on with both teams carving out goal scoring chances, but none was converted, No one stepped up for either side and the game was wearing on until Ibisevic came on and he immediately missed two or three chances to give Bosnia the lead going into the second leg in Lisbon. Ronaldo also missed a fine opportunity, but he blamed the pitch rather than his poor choice of placement for the horrendous miss. The first leg ended goalless much to the delight of both managers.
Before the commencement of the second leg, Ronaldo and company warned their opponents that it will be a different ball game at the Estadio Luz in Lisbon, but Susic and Dzeko would hear none of it. The game began with Portugal asking all the questions and it wasn' t for long that they had to wait for the right answer when Ronaldo was practically thrown to the floor by two Bosnians and from the resultant free-kick, he dispatched with customary panache to make it 1-0 Portugal both on the night and on agg. It was a goal worthy of winning even a World Cup final. Nani reminded everyone of his on and off ability midway through the first half with a pile driver which left Begovic scrambling. 2-0 and you couldn't see past the Seleccao now.
But in football, it is not over until it is truly over. The error supine Coentrao inexplicably handled in the box and Bosnia were deservedly awarded a spot kick and a route back into the tie. co-captain, Misimovic who hardly rejects favours duly sent Patricio the wrong way to make it 2-1.
The first half ended with Paulo Bento very unhappy with the goal conceded. Susic on his part was elated with the scoreline as his team would have easily been four goals down.
The second stanza began in similar fashion as the first with Portugal dictating the play and creating chances. Joao Moutinho who hadn't really imposed himself in the game, had a say in the third goal with a perfectly weighted through ball to Ronaldo who escaped past the sprawling Begovic to score his second and Portugal's third; the two goal lead was restored. A few minutes later, as if the mountain was not high enough already for Susic's wards, Senad Lulic was sent off to an early bath for dissent. Bosnia didn't let that affect them as co-captain, Emir Spahic pulled one back to make it 3-2. Bento could not contain his disapproval of the way his defense was opened up for the easy finish.
This was like a wake up call for the Seleccao who immediately went to the other end to put three past the hapless Begovic who was also bamboozled by Bolton a week prior. Postiga was on hand to score his 18th and 19th goal for Portugal and Veloso added the sixth with a superb left footed free kick which the keeper watched helplessly. 6-2 it ended and Portugal made it to yet another tournament. Susic the soothsayer was wrong this time around.
The four pots for the EURO 2012 (co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine) draw has been confirmed by UEFA and they are as follows:
POT1 - Poland, Ukraine, Spain, Netherlands.
POT2 - Germany, Italy, England, Russia
POT3 - Portugal, Greece, Croatia, Sweden
POT4 - Rep of Ireland, Denmark, Czech Rep, France
The draws for the group stage will take place on the 2nd of December 2011 at the Ukraine Palace of Arts in Kiev.
Meanwhile, England superstar, Wayne Rooney will have to wait until December 9 to know if his and the FA's appeal for a reduction of the three game ban will be reduced or upheld.
Written by Ohis Eboreime
Follow him on Twitter @ohiskaka1990
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