Chelsea's Mario Stanic may have just retired from international football, but he
Chelsea's Mario Stanic may have just retired from international football, but he is more than qualified to tell TheFA.com just what England can expect when they come face-to-face with Croatia at Portman Road on Wednesday evening...
Mario Stanic has played for seven different clubs in six different countries in his 12 years to date as a professional footballer, and during that time he has won the UEFA Cup with Parma and played in a World Cup semi-final for his country, but I wonder whether he has ever seen a summer quite like the one that his current employers from west London have just been involved in?
"Everyone is talking about Chelsea. We have good quality new players and I think that with the new players, what we have now is that we can fight for the Premier League. It's not going to be easy, you know some times it is not the money that guarantees whether you are going to win the League - look at Inter - but of course when you have quality..."
And already an interview set up to discuss Sven-Göran Eriksson's opponents this coming Wednesday has veered towards every football fans favourite topic of conversation at the moment, the Russian Revolution that is taking place down the King's Road.
So back to priorities and this week's friendly meeting between England and his native Croatia. Which visiting players should the Three Lions be keeping an eye on at Portman Road, which will be staging an international for the very first time? "Igor Tudor, Ivica Olic, Darijo Srna and Marko Babic from Bayer Leverkusen, we have some good young players and they have good potential.
"And there is Milan Rapaic, a fantastic player. He plays on the left, is very quick and good in one-one-one situations, but I don't know who is going to play on the right for England, but it will be interesting to see."
However, every current Croatia side now have the unenviable task of being compared, rightly or wrongly, with the 'golden generation' of 1996-2002, a team that qualified for two successive World Cups, as well as for Euro 96 and stunned the football world by finishing third at France 98, and a team that included Stanic himself along with the likes of Zvonimir Boban, Alen Boksic, Davor Suker, Robert Jarni, as well as the mercurial Robert Prosinecki.
"That was really a very big generation and it is really difficult to compare someone with Boban, Bokšic or Igor Stimac, with the guys who had played for some of Europe's top teams. This is a new, quality generation, but I don't want to already put them under pressure by saying, 'this is the new Boban, this is the new Slaven Bilic or Stimac'.
"The quality is there, so lets see how they are going to do, but it depends also on them. Some times you have enough quality, but maybe when you are in trouble or under pressure, then you don't give your best."
Both teams are currently lying second in their respective Euro 2004 qualifying groups with three games still to come this autumn, including crucial fixtures against their group leaders, which in Croatia's case means a match with Bulgaria. So who, in Stanic's opinion, is currently the stronger of the two sides?
"I think that England are the favourites of course," says the 31-year-old, "but if they think that it is going to be easy against Croatia, then that would be a big mistake. I think that out back four is really brilliant and they are going to find it really difficult to break the defensive line.
"Robert Kovac is playing, but I am not sure whether Tudor is going to play as a defender, but I think he will play in the middle, Stjepan Tomas is going to play, Dario Simic is going to play, Boris Zivkovic (pictured) is going to play on the right, so for the manager it is a bit of a problem because we have five or six really good defenders, but a nice problem, a good problem.
"England have big experience, they are one of the best teams in Europe and at this moment it is really difficult to say, 'who is the better?' Of course, England are the favourites, but some times when I was playing for Chelsea, or for Parma and I was always the favourite and you had to be very careful. It is a friendly game though, but I am not sure - what is a friendly?"
England have not met Croatia since the two teams played out a forgettable goalless draw at Wembley seven years ago, ("I came on as a substitute in that game for the last 20, 25 minutes", recalls the man who represented his country 48 times before calling it a day last May) and are using the fixture as preparation for their forthcoming qualifiers with F.Y.R. Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Turkey.
But, what does the Blues midfielder think the scoreline will be this time? "I don't know because it is a friendly. As I just said, I am very interested to see what is going to happen. The last few games that Croatia have played, they have done really well. We beat Sweden 2-1 in a friendly game that was good for our confidence. I am not sure at this moment whether Croatia are going to lose, maybe a draw.
"I think that it is good for us to play England", Stanic continued, "as well as being good for England to play us. It will be a good test for England because Croatia are now a good team and we play football, so it will be good and interesting to see, because the teams play in two different ways."
There are, and have been, a whole host of Croatian stars who have plied their trade in the FA Premiership over the years, including Bokšic, Šuker, Bilic, Stimac, Zivkovic, Boško Balaban, Bišcan and Stanic himself, and this means that "everyone back home is excited" about the game on Wednesday evening, according to the man dubbed 'Super Mario' at the Bridge.
However, is he confident that his country will be competing in the Algarve next June? "We started really badly because we dropped two points to Estonia at home and then we lost to Bulgaria", Stanic said. "And now we are looking really good and the way that we are now playing shows that the manager has found the team and they have confidence and I am very interested to see what happens on Wednesday."
Speaking of things of interest, it had almost been half-an-hour with no mention of Chelsea and their team of world-beaters; so how did the man in question feel about it all, as surely the chances of first-team football at Stamford Bridge had receded drastically now that manager Claudio Ranieri was able to buy just about any player, in any position, in the world?
"I am OK. It is going to be difficult for everyone, not only for me, as there are only eleven players in a team and we have a big squad of 23 or 24 players, so it is going to be difficult as actually we have two teams. But I have to look forward and I have to believe in myself like always and I am sure that my chance is going to come and then I have to be there and not be injured."
A new era in Chelsea Football Club started with a win on Sunday and one former Croatia international believes that his country's new generation of stars can begin their rebuilding process with a similar result on Wednesday night against England at Ipswich.
by Richard Morgan
Stay logged on to TheFA.com for all the news and views from inside the England camp during the week.