x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Bilic feels heat

The worry for Slaven Bilic after Saturday's 2-2 draw against Ukraine is that he might become available rather earlier than anticipated.

Slaven Bilic, the Croatia coach, attempts to rally his side against Ukraine on Saturday.
Slaven Bilic, the Croatia coach, attempts to rally his side against Ukraine on Saturday.

He was linked with the top jobs at Celtic and Sunderland - even with the Real Madrid hot seat - and he remains a leading candidate for the top position at Portsmouth should the new owners require a big name, despite repeated assurances that he sees it as his patriotic duty to lead Croatia into the World Cup.

The worry for Slaven Bilic after Saturday's 2-2 draw against Ukraine is that he might become available rather earlier than anticipated - and if Croatia fail to make it to the finals his reputation as a coach will suffer. In qualifying for Euro 2008, it all seemed very easy for Bilic. Luck went with him - the bobble that took a back pass over Paul Robinson's attempted clearance to seal a 2-0 win against England in Zagreb, the gaffe by Scott Carson early in the return at Wembley - and he could always rely on Eduardo to steal a late goal, as he did in Israel and Estonia.

Now, though, the luck seems to be running the other way. Luka Modric and Mladen Petric both hit a post in the final four minutes on Saturday, while Andriy Pyatov, the Ukraine goalkeeper, after the blunder that gifted Petric an early opener, made a number of fine saves, and Vitaliy Mandzyuk cleared another Petric effort off the line. "We can't be satisfied with the result," said Bilic. "When you consider all the chances we had in the second half you have to say we deserved to win."

Perhaps if Eduardo had been there, they would have done. The Hamburg pair of Petric and Ivica Olic are industrious enough, but they do not have the imagination or the ruthlessness of the Arsenal striker. He should return for the qualifiers in the autumn from a groin injury, but there are other, more pressing problems to be addressed. Bilic has always preferred creators in midfield yet on Saturday they were overrun in the first half.

Bilic, to his credit, rectified the problem with a double change at half-time, with Modric moving out to the left, but the improvement came only after Oleksiy Hay had capitalised on more sloppy marking to head in Nazarenko's left-wing free-kick. It was another substitute, Martio Mandzukic, who laid on Modric's equaliser, but football will not judge Bilic on the wisdom of his replacements, but on results.

The stark fact is that Croatia lie an almost insurmountable seven points behind England. Ukraine, with a seemingly easier set of fixtures to come, are only three points behind with a game in hand in the race for a play-off spot. sports@thenational.ae