Suker's Score Puts Croatia Close to Advancing
By Tony Czuczka
Saturday, June 20, 1998; 1:22 p.m. EDT
Denied repeatedly by off-target shots and wasted opportunities, the Croatian striker finally came through in the blazing midafternoon heat Saturday. His second goal at the World Cup put Croatia on the verge of the second round with a 1-0 victory over Japan.
With playmaker Zvonimir Boban benched because of a pulled leg muscle, the favored Croatians struggled mightily to impose their trademark midfield passing game. The Japanese disrupted it with a tactical mix of speed, grit and dogged marking.
"The heat hurt the quality of our game, and Japan was tougher than we expected,'' said veteran midfielder Robert Prosinecki, who was replaced midway through the second half. "But the most important thing is that we won.''
Newcomer Japan remained winless and scoreless after two Group H games, in effect ending its quest to reach the second round in its World Cup debut. But the Japanese have impressed with their grit and an ablity to keep two well-regarded opponents to one-goal victories; they lsot to Argentina 1-0 in their opener.
Croatia, which beat Jamaica 3-1 in its debut game, now has six points, virtually ensuring a second-round berth in its first trip to the World Cup finals.
"We have achieved our first goal,'' Croatia coach Miroslav Blazevic said. "We're all very proud and we're a very small country and already we're in the elite.''
The Japanese came within easy range of Drazen Ladic's net numerous times, but as on many previous occasions the final touch in front of the goal was lacking.
"There were so many chances,'' striker Masayuki Okano said. "They were tired and we were tired, and we couldn't take advantage of them. I'm really upset.''
From the outset, the Croatians drew jeers and whistles from some 10,000 Japanese fans as they tried to keep control by holding the ball and slowing down play.
Suker first threatened after eight minutes, his powerful header going just wide. He also volleyed a cross high and then curled a free kick a foot wide of the goalpost.
Japan's best scoring chance of the game came in the 34th when Hidetoshi Nakata stole the ball from Prosinecki in midfield and lobbed it into the penalty area. But Ladic deflected Masashi Nakayma's right-footed blast with his oustretched arm.
More than once, Croatian players were pointing fingers at each other or shaking their heads after missed chances. And Suker hitting the crossbar in the 72nd minute with a lob over goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi didn't improve their mood.
But he finally netted a left-footed drive from inside the area after settling a cross from Aljosa Asanovic.
"This was a very difficult game,'' Blazevic said. "But I think it would not be partial to say we deserved the win.''
Japanese coach Takeshi Okada was only left with a dour look.
"We tried to deal with a player of international class like Suker by playing a collective game,'' Okada said. "We tried to gather our forces for this match, but unfortunately that was not enough.
"Our approach was to have two players on each one or the other side.
"For Japanese football it's not over. We have good chances in 2002 and 2006.''
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press