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Croatians Party Like Rock Stars

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I am your main man if you're looking for trouble
I'll take no lip 'cause no ones tougher than me
If I kicked your face you'd soon be seeing double
Hey little girl, keep your hands off me 'cause I'm a rocker – Thin Lizzy, ‘The Rocker’

Dear Barclay’s Premier League mid-table club owners —

Please find a way to sign Croatian coach Slaven Bilic as soon as Euro 2008 finishes. He might wear an earring on the touchline, but don’t let that scare you away from spending your hard-earned British Pounds on the 39-year-old.

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Yes, he might play in a metal band, but he also holds a Law degree.

More important, he beat the England National Team twice in qualification, including a 3-2 stunner at Wembley Stadium. (Okay, most primates could outwit Steve McClaren, but still.)

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As a neutral American observer from across the pond, having Bilic rocking on the sidelines will make me more willing to watch your club play. And if you give Bilic the time to learn English better, imagine what it will do for his song-writing career. Imagine the depth and introspection.

So want your supporters to get excited when inevitably they’ll finish somewhere between eighth and 12th in the table? Get Bilic to sign on the dotted line and at worst he writes a thrashing jam about it.

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You’ll thank me later.

Rock on,

Mike Cardillo

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Thursday, metal man Bilic led the Speed of Sound Tour, err, the Croatian National Team to an impressive 2-1 victory over the hated Germans in Klagenfurt, Austria. The sound and fury of the men in the checkers, coached by the Rawbau guitarist, left German coach Joachim Löw and his emo-styled bangs shaking their heads in bewilderment.

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It’s doubtful we’ve seen the Germans with so much self-doubt and confusion since the days of the Wiemar Republic. After declaring themselves as serious tournament favorites in their opening win over Poland, the Germans are left needing a victory over Austria, which drew Poland 1-1 via penalty kick in extra time, next week to advance.

Yeah, Lucas Podolski snatched a late goal to make it 2-1, but the fury you expected from the Germans in the final 10 minutes never arose, aside from Bastian Schweinsteiger drawing a mindless red card for retaliating after a tackle.

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For today though, let’s spread the praises of the Croats. The first goal scored by Darijo Srna was the result of about 15 passes strung together to bring the ball up the field, triggering a James Hetfield-style, “Ye-awh” from Bilic.

The second was the result when Hasselhoff, err, Jens Lehmann made a minor fumble, allowing Ivica Olic to clean up the mess.

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The Croats are a good mix of grool hard-men like the Kovacs, and the skilled attackers of Modric and Kranjcar (who blew two clear chances to make it 2-0). Plus, they place their hands over their hearts during the national anthem. (See, they’re just like us!)

Everything goes back to Bilic, who seems to have a glint of Jose Mourinho in him even if he doesn’t fancy expensive man-scarves, which he more than makes up for with the brazen earring. Bilic appears to be channeling the playbook of Jürgen Klinsmann from the 2006 World Cup, where a youthful coach inspired a young-ish team and celebrated right there with them. It’s doubtful that Klinsmann wrote and recorded the German song for the tournament, like Bilic did for the Euro –Vatero Ludilo (Fiery Madness).

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Although he fined a couple players for sneaking out to a Zagreb disco ahead of a qualifier, it wouldn’t be shocking if Bilic was caught with the fans ripping cigs, shotgunning warm pils and partying like a rock star after Thursday’s win in Klagenfurt. For one night at least, Croatia (Hrvat!!!) earned it for winning Group B and, more important, neutering the Germans worse than Clemenceau and the boys at the Treaty of Versailles.

Just remember, you can’t exactly dust for vomit … and there are still four more games – if you’re lucky – to go.

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Thursday’s heroes: Danijel Pranjic, Croatia. Hard to single-out one Croat on a day they made Germany look like Austria in disguise, but Pranjic came from left back and eviscerated the pairing of Philip Lahm and Clemens Fritz, forcing Germany to changed things up in the second half. His cross set up Darijo Srna’s goal.

Ivica Vastić, Austria. The 39-year-old Croatian born substitute drilled a 92nd minute penalty kick as coolly as you can, keeping hope alive for Austria. He also earns a lifetime supply of beer from Austrian brewer Ottakringer Brauerei, which is nice.

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Artur Boruc, Poland. The new papa came up huge in the first 20 minutes, turning away numerous Austrian shots, as the co-hosts shot out of the gates. I’m not going to hold it against him that he gave up a late penalty kick; guess he’s no Brad Friedel. (Also more importantly, Boruc has the one Polish name that is easy to spell.)

Der German ödd couple: Christoph Meltzelder and Philip Lahm. Meltzelder is a giant, rocking one of the only full beards in the tournament. Lahm is might have been a body-double for Verne Troyer in that dreadful new Mike Myers flick.

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Angry, a little?: The most bizarre exchange during ESPN’s coverage had to come from Rob Stone, a perceived soccer-guy. After Andy Gray said there was no such thing as an ugly goal, Stone came out of leftfield with this one at halftime of Austria/Poland, “Is there such thing as an ugly prom date? (restrained laughs at the desk)…there is.” You could hear Julie Foudy groan, but Stone wasn’t done. “Hey, she deserves it, but not enough.” Guess someone didn’t have such an enchanted evening. Good thing it’s hard to imagine Stone’s prom date was actually watching him host “Euro Today.”

Weekend preview

Friday (Group C)

It’s a shame these games are both Friday noon-ish, because they’re the most intriguing of the next three days.

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Italy v. Romania, Pro Letzigrund, Zurich, Switzerland (11:50 a.m., ESPN2): Italy was flat-out putrid vs. the Netherlands on Monday while Romania played a rigid, defensive game against France taking one shot in the process. The Azzuri should tinker with the lineup, while Romania is going to have show a little attacking impetus, though they could conceivably take the draw seeing they play the Dutch last and beat them twice in qualification. Maybe the biggest question is if Italy can get any spark from its midfield.
Player to watch: Andrea Pirlo, Italy. If you get the Universal HD channel, they’re been running the 2006 World Cup film. It’s stunning to watch in HD. You forgot how great Pirlo was in that tournament pulling the strings in the midfield and creating danger from freekicks. He’s only 29 and needs to channel his 2006/07 form to cut through the yellow-clad Romanian midfield.
Score guess: Italy 1, Romania 0

Netherlands v. France, Wankdorf Stadion, Berne, Switzerland: (2:30 p.m., ESPN2): Absolutely intriguing match-up because of what transpired on Monday. The Dutch blitzed Italy 3-0, while France slept-walk to a 0-0 draw with Romania. It’s impossible to think the Dutch can play as good as they did and will surely be tested by a desperate France side that will be forced to take it out of first-gear. This will probably come down to coaching, as in whether Marco van Basten or Raymond Domenech make the right adjustments from the previous match. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but this one could have some goals in it.
Player to watch: Karim Benzema, France. The 20-year-old is touted as the next big player from France. With Thierry Henry nicked up and the only other options up from Nic Anelka and international neophyte Batetimbi Gomis, Benzema needs to create havoc in front of an untested Dutch defense.
Score guess: Netherlands 2, France 2

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Saturday (Group D)

Sweden v. Spain, Tivoli Neu Stadion, Innsbruck, Austria (11:50 a.m., ESPN2): Pretty straightforward here, if either side wins they essentially wrap up the group. These two teams came out of the same qualifying group, Sweden winning 2-0 at home about in late 2006, while Spain won 3-0 in Madrid about a year ago. Wonder if Spain feels any pressure to dispatch the Swedes as quickly as they did the Russians?
Player to watch: Andreas Isaksson, Sweden. The Sweden No. 1 basically had to simply stand on his line Tuesday against the Greeks. He’ll be under a lot more pressure Saturday. He didn’t play much for Manchester City this season, so maybe that becomes a factor against the Torres-Villa tag-team.
Score guess: Sweden 1, Spain 2

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Greece v. Russia, Wals Siezenheim Stadion, Salzburg, Austria (2:30 p.m., ESPN2): Don’t’ want to break-out the diehards only chestnut, but …
Player to watch: Roman Pavlyuchenko, Russia. The baby-faced 26-year-old leading-scorer in the Russian Premier League did net late vs. Spain. Maybe he’ll do it again to give Russian a lifeline to the final matchday.
Score guess: Greece 0, Russia 1

Sunday (Group A)

* Portugal is through to the quarterfinals.
* The winner of Czech/Turkey advances. If that ends in a tie, all hell breaks lose, since they’ve both scored two goals and let in three. There’s an outside shot there could be an impromptu penalty-kick shootout if full time ends in a draw. And if that ends in a draw, it’s revolvers at 20 paces. (Don’t think about it too much or your head will explode.)

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Switzerland v. Portugal, St. Jakob Park, Basel, Switzerland (2:30 p.m., ESPN2): Hard to say what happens here for a lot of reasons. Will the Swiss show up and try to at least get a win for the home fans, or have they already confirmed their plan tickets to Ibiza? Portugal on the other hand likely won’t show much and could give some reserves a little bit of run. Barring a massive loss or Turkey or the Czechs winning by a couple, Portugal is top of group, so they can’t fool around trying to set up if they play Germany or Croatia in the quarters.
Guy to watch: Ludovic Magnin, Switzerland. To his credit, came off as maybe the only likeable guy on the co-hosts.
Score guess: Switzerland 0, Portugal 2

Turkey v. Czech Republic, Stade de Geneve, Geneva, Switzerland (2:30 p.m, ESPN Classic): By far the single must-watch of the four weekend fixtures. Basically this is the old Mussolini-inspired, ‘Win or die’ match. This is going to be a banger, with lots of physical play that could go back-and-forth until the final whistle. The Czechs are better, but the Turks won’t go down without a fight in front of what figures to be a pro-Turk crowd. When people talk about soccer’s ‘atmosphere’ this is a game they’ll talk about. Again, must watch because neither team can just sit back and let things happen. Instead they’ll both have initiative from the first whistle.
Guy to watch: Milan Baros, Czech. The well-traveled striker showed glimpses of his 2004 form when he won the Golden Boot in Portugal against Portugal. Against the less-pedigreed, yet more rugged, Turk defenders he’ll have to make something happen.
Score guess: Turkey 1, Czech Republic 2

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