Croatia's Simic eyes 100th cap

BAD TATZMANNSDORF, Austria (Reuters) - Croatia defender Dario Simic said on Thursday he was hoping to win his 100th cap during a run to the knockout stages at Euro 2008.

The 32-year-old central defender, who faces a battle for a place in the starting line-up, said he was exceptionally proud of 98 appearances for a country where soccer “means everything to so many people.”

“It is a great honour to play for Croatia 98 times and I will be delighted if I reach the 100 caps milestone during the tournament,” he told reporters.

“It’s not easy to be down the pecking order with the coach after playing a role in all five previous tournaments we qualified for. But I am hopeful of getting a chance because we expect to reach the knockout stage of the competition.”

Croatia, who failed to progress past the group stages at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and Euro 2004, open their Group B campaign against Austria in Vienna on Sunday.

Simic, the only player in the current 23 who was in the squad who finished third in the 1998 World Cup, is confident that what he called the present “less talented” group can at least emulate that achievement.

“That was a very special team full of outstanding players who were individually stronger than the current crop, but we have a cohesive unit here with a fantastic team spirit.

“Germany are the group favourites, Croatia and Poland are on the same level while Austria are not far behind because they are the co-hosts and hungry to make an impact.

“But we really expect to progress into the quarter-finals and beyond. And I think we have a very good chance.”

Midfielder Darijo Srna, who is in charge of the team’s set pieces, said Croatia needed to be wary of his Austrian counterpart Andreas Ivanschitz on Sunday.

“We don’t want to give away needless free kicks or corners because dead ball situations are Austria’s greatest strength,” he said.

“Avoiding defeat in the opening match is imperative but we really should beat them to get our campaign on the right track.”

Croatia take on Germany in Klagenfurt on June 12 and Poland at the same venue four days later.

Editing by Trevor Huggins