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ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia will play to their first full home crowd at a competitive match for almost two and a half years this week, in a World Cup qualifier which coach Ante Cacic hopes will show his side has healthy support.
Hooliganism meant fans were banned from several home matches - the last time they had a full home crowd was in a 6-0 win over Azerbaijan in October 2014 - but Friday's clash against Ukraine will give them a chance to refute claims that Croatians are not fond of the national side.
"Finally, we will have the massive home crowd support we need," Cacic told a news conference after naming his squad to face the Ukrainians on Friday. The Croatians top Group 1 with 10 points from four games, two more than second-placed Ukraine.
"I am confident the match against the Ukrainians will deny a loud minority claiming that most Croatian football fans don't like the national team and want to boycott us," Cacic said.
Croatia last enjoyed partial home support in March 2015 at a 5-1 win over Norway in Zagreb's Maksimir stadium, where a section of the ground was closed for the Euro 2016 qualifier after fans had caused crowd trouble in a 1-1 draw at Italy.
The match against the Norwegians was marred by racist chants and that forced the Croatians to play their next home game against Italy behind closed doors in Split, where a swastika emblazoned on the pitch by a chemical agent days before the kick off became visible during the game.
"I am a man of the people and I can see for myself how much the people love the national team," Cacic said. "The team means a lot more to our nation than some people suggest with their poisonous attitude."
Cacic will be forced to field a makeshift side against Ukraine, with defenders Sime Vrsaljko and Vedran Corluka injured and winger Ivan Perisic suspended.
Asked whether he considered recalling Liverpool's out-of-favor defender Dejan Lovren, Cacic said:
"Not now, but if he is fit and playing for his club in May, he will be in contention."
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Robin Pomeroy