Following their opening 1-0 victory over Uruguay at Turkey 2013, Croatia's Marko Pjaca was quite willing to admit that the European side had been through something of a battle in Bursa.
During the first period, the side from the Adriatic were certainly the more dominant, leading at half-time despite missing a penalty, though the tables slowly began to turn in the second-half. Playing in front of what was an unexpectedly partisan crowd in favour of the South Americans, Pjaca was simply content to have got through the uncomfortable encounter with a winning start to Group F.
“It was intense and the atmosphere was pretty fierce,” the skilful wide-man said. “It was a really tough game, particularly in the second-half when they built up the pressure, but we held on and we can be happy with how it turned out.
“Ultimately, it was a great performance, it's always important to open the tournament with a win and the whole team worked hard, so we hope to continue that way.”
Playing in a 4-3-3 formation for the early periods of the game, which receded to a 4-5-1 as the game – and Uruguay – pushed on, Pjaca and Ante Rebic caused all sorts of problems down the wings, with the latter getting the crucial goal. Running at the full-backs, cutting inside and not afraid to show a bit of flair, they look set to be a handful for any defence, though Pjaca modestly downplayed his own performance.
Nonetheless, Croatia look to be a team blessed with some noticeable talent – and not just because of some eye-catching hairstyles. “There's a really good team spirit amongst the players, which is one of our real strengths,” the 18-year-old said. “We've got great players, playing in great teams, such as Marko Livaja in Italy, and some players – like Rebic – who should go on to play for some top clubs. Our main goal is a possession game, and from there we look to create chances.”
Against a side less robust than Los Charruas, you can see their strong, but technical, style being even more effective. The victory was their first at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 14 years, having returned home from Colombia 2011 without a point in their first appearance since Nigeria 1999. It is understandable then that Pjaca is keeping his eyes firmly set on the present, rather than what could be in store. “The main goal is to get through the group stage and if we manage that, then we will see.”
A win against Uzbekistan would seal progression to the last 16, which they also achieved in Nigeria, and while Pjaca had yet to see the Asian side's 3-0 win over New Zealand, he was aware of the threat they pose. “I didn't see how they played today but I heard that they beat and drew with Portugal, while they only lost 3-2 to Spain in the 90th minute, so judging by that they are a good team and it will be tough.”
This year has been a real breakthrough season for Pjaca and one that has lead to success with Croatian side Lokomotiva too. “I'm very satisfied with the season, we finished second in the national championship and got to the cup final, so it was a great, great season. We're now into the qualification stages of the Europa League.
“It's not far away now, qualification begins as soon as the championship ends. The final is on 13 July – should we get to the final [laughs] – and the Europa League begins on 18 July, so no rest for me!”