Croatia manager Slaven Bilic has no fear of facing Italy tomorrow. “Luka Modric is better than Andrea Pirlo.”
The Azzurri have never been able to beat Croatia in their history, picking up only two draws from five meetings.
“This Italy is different. They are a new team and the rest is just numbers,” assured Bilic ahead of Thursday’s 17.00 UK time kick-off in Poznan.
“We must prove on the pitch that we are a great side and of course facing Italy is all the motivation we need.
“Pirlo is a real playmaker, just like Modric for us. They are two genuine pillars of the midfield, as if they are playing well, then the whole team plays well.
“Pirlo is Italy’s most important player, so we must put pressure on him. However, Modric is perhaps even better...”
Bilic was also impressed by Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli, despite missing a sitter against Spain.
“He is a world class player and an enormous talent. At times he is a genius, at others he goes over the line.
“Let’s say that, as with many other great players in the last, he is talent and wildness, but that’s what makes him who he is.”
The Croats beat the Republic of Ireland 3-1 in the opening Group C match and are currently top of the table, so have a good chance of going through to the quarter-finals.
“I was really satisfied. People have told me our match was the most attractive of the tournament so far, even for neutral fans. We defeated strong opponents and we deserved it. We made our first step to achieving our main goal, which is to reach the next round,” Bilic told UEFA.com.
“Look, every team can play better, but I would be satisfied if we can play tactically, technically and physically similar to the way we played against Ireland. Now we are faced with stronger opponents, but we are well prepared. The only thing we need to improve are some psychological aspects, in terms of recovery and peaking again. A national trait among Croatians is that it takes us longer to wind down than other countries.
“Over the last two years we are really used to being the favourites, but we are adaptable. Italy are the favourites on paper, while Spain are the favourites to be the top team in the group, but it's only on paper. We are aware it will be a more difficult game than against Ireland, but who the favourites are is irrelevant.
“This is the European Championship. OK, maybe Italy are favourites, but it was such a minor factor for us in our preparations and we won't use it as an excuse. We came here with the goal to reach the next stage and for that it's necessary for us to have a good result against Italy.
“I really respect Italy and Mr Prandelli who has changed the team round in the last two years. He changed the style and philosophy, and they play more like Spain now. I take my hat off to them.
“I wouldn't say they are better than Spain, but their play is very diverse and they are difficult to analyse. But, like any other team, they have their own problems and blind spots and we will try to take advantage.
“I think we have some top players, but players who are better when they have the ball than when they don't. We set our aims very high in every match and the Croatian public have high demands from us, expecting victory in every match we play.
“We will try to control the game, of course defending as a team is a priority, but we love having the ball. I think our chances in the game are 50-50.”