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Croatia dream of return to glory after 3-1 victory against Ireland in Poland

POZNAN, Poland -- After a convincing 3-1 victory over Ireland, Croatia have the wind in their sails and are dreaming of a return to the form they enjoyed in the 1990s when coach Slaven Bilic was a player.

Having outgunned the Irish in Poznan's Municipal Stadium on Sunday, Croatia meet an Italy side, boosted by a well-deserved 1-1 draw with holders Spain, in the same stadium on Thursday and believe they can win a second successive match.

They have shaken off the impact of injuries that sidelined several key names even before the start of the tournament, including midfielder Ivo Ilicevic, defender Dejan Lovren and veteran striker Ivica Olic.

“We are strong as a team, and I think that after this match we are getting even better and even stronger. I expect to play even better against Italy because the first match is the most difficult, and this is behind us,” Bilic said.

The 43-year-old is due to step down following Euro 2012 after six years in charge and move into club management at Russia's Lokomotiv Moscow.

The fine start to the tournament tips the odds a little further in Croatia's favour, he reckons.

“One win would be enough to go to the quarterfinals,” Bilic said.

“We cannot fly in the championship, but let's go step by step. We respect all our opponents. We have no fear against anyone. Spain and Italy are favourites in our group, but I still think we are able to beat one of them.”

The squad is on a high after starting so well.

“This is really a big win and it will be easier for us in the next matches,” said Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric.

His former club-mate, midfielder Niko Kranjcar, underlined that Croatia had come into the Ireland game as favorites.

“Now we have a couple of difficult matches to come against Italy and Spain, where we are not the favorites, but in previous championships we have shown that we can handle them,” he said.

“We are ready to make a great impression on this European championship.”

Everton striker Nikica Jelavic, whose goal was sandwiched between a double by man of the man Mario Mandzukic of Wolfsburg, said the focus had shifted squarely to the Italy game.

“We're top of the group and of course that gives us confidence,” Jelavic said.

“We will try to get the three points against them, so that we can go into the third game without any pressure on us.”

Croatia wrap up their group matches on June 18 against Spain in Gdansk.

Pressed to comment on the other performers so far at Euro 2012, Russia, who thrashed the Czech Republic 4-1 on Friday in Group A, Bilic allowed himself a little stargazing.

“They're one of the best teams in this tournament, but we have no time to think about that group. I hope we can play against Russia after the group stages,” he said.

Like Ireland, Croatia qualified through the playoffs, in their case against Turkey - exacting revenge for the Turks' penalties victory in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals.

Their progress four years ago raised hopes of a return to their 1990s glory days, when Bilic was a pillar of their defence.

Croatia, emerging from the war sparked by the collapse of Yugoslavia, reached the quarter-finals of Euro 1996 and finished third at the 1998 World Cup.

Doing well at Euro 2012 would have added symbolism for a nation set to join the European Union next year.

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 Spain draw 1-1 against Italy 
Croatia's Luka Modric, left, and Ireland's Jon Walters jump for the ball during the Euro 2012 soccer championship Group C match between the Republic of Ireland and Croatia in Poznan, Poland, Sunday, June 10. (AP)

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