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   June 9, 2002 | 1300 IST



Battle of Wits

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Hope for Croatia, despair for Italy

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Simon Evans

Croatia were being written off and Italy hailed as potential World Cup winners after their opening games, but Saturday's 2-1 win for the Croatians over Giovanni Trapattoni's side has thrown group G wide open.

Two goals in the space of four second-half minutes not only turned around a game which was heading Italy's way after Christian Vieri's opening goal, but transformed Croatia from wooden spoon contenders into challengers for the last 16.

Former Inter Milan coach Roy Hodgson once said that Italians match results in either the joy of a wedding or the misery of a funeral and perhaps conscious of the tendency to exaggerate the import of a single result, Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni issued a call for unity.

Female Croatian soccer fans celebrate in Zagreb the 2-1 victory over Italy "The most important thing is to maintain our morale because we still have the qualities to get through," said Trapattoni, whose team were furious that they had two goals disallowed.

Italy, Croatia and Mexico all have three points with pointless Ecuador facing the Mexicans later on Sunday. Italy play Mexico in their final group match on Thursday.

To add to his new-found difficulties, against Mexico Trapattoni will probably be without central defender Alessandro Nesta who limped off with a foot injury and is rated highly doubtful for the final group game.

Croatia's lifeless showing in their 1-0 loss to Mexico last Sunday led critics such as the former captain Zvonimir Boban to question the qualities of Mirko Jozic's squad.

But Saturday's win offered a reminder of the spirit, determination and fine counter-attacking play that led Boban's Croatia to third place in the World Cup in France four years ago.

Attacking midfielder Davor Vugrinec, whose lively display justified his call-up at the expense of Robert Prosinecki, believes there is no reason why Croatia cannot pull off more surprises.

"Let's hope so. After this result we have reason to believe. It certainly won't be easy. But the fact that we have beaten Italy shows that this team certainly has quality," Vugrinec said.

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