Euro 2016 qualifying Group H leaders Croatia will be looking to extend their lead of second-placed Italy to five points when the two sides meet in Zagreb on Friday in a game which will be played behind closed doors.
Racist chanting by supporters during the win over Norway in March means that this game will be played in an empty stadium, while there were also some regrettable scenes when the two sides met in the reverse fixture in October as the game was suspended before finishing in a 1-1 draw.
Fortunately for Niko Kovac’s side, the performance of the team has more than made up for the behaviour of their followers as they sit pretty with 13 points from a possible 15 and in an immensely strong position to qualify for another major championship. There is quality all over their side as they showed in destroying the Norwegians 5-1, while they were very unlucky not to win the aforementioned game in Italy after dominating the majority of proceedings.
The absence of injured playmaker Luka Modric will be felt here, but in Mario Mandzukic they have one of the top strikers on European football. Meanwhile, Italy are relying on players with much less international experience to score their goals. Southampton star Graziano Pelle has made a decent start to his international career, while highly rated duo Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza are among those being given the chance to impress by boss Antonio Conte with former first-choice forward Mario Balotelli apparently out of the fold.
At the back, the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli will be hoping for an easier time of things than they had in the Champions League final with Juventus. Giorgio Chiellini, who missed the showpiece event in Berlin, may be fit enough to feature here in a game which also sees a quick renewal of hostilities in midfield between Barcelona star Ivan Rakitic and Juventus’ Claudio Marchisio.
This promises to be entertaining affair, and if Croatia win, it can be safely assumed that they will make the finals. As for Italy, they are hoping for their first win in three qualifying games and to establish their place in the top two in the group.
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