By Vjekoslav Paun with Croatia
Croatia are still in dreamland. They handed Argentina their heaviest group-stage defeat in 60 years on Wednesday night to advance to the knockout phase of the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time since Davor Suker and Co went all the way to the semi-finals at France 1998.
Big players from big clubs
Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Juventus and Liverpool home members of Croatia’s squad, meaning the likes of Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic, Dejan Lovren, Mario Mandzukic, Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic are regularly training with and playing against the world’s elite. Furthermore, Andrej Kramaric and Ante Rebic are fresh from fine seasons in the German Bundesliga, with the latter brilliantly undoing Bayern Munich in May’s DFB-Pokal final, and there is Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.
Experience means self-confidence
Zlatko Dalic selected one of the oldest squads in Russia. With an average age of 27 years and ten months, Croatia have vast experience and the self-confidence that goes with it. Every man is aware of his capability and almost all of them are first-choice players at their respective clubs.
Dalic the brave
How many coaches adopt a safety-first strategy for a World Cup curtain-raiser? Not Dalic. The Croatia boss sent out a clear message of intent by starting with four attackers – Rebic, Perisic, Kramaric and Mandzukic – against Nigeria, and his bravery was rewarded with a 2-0 victory. He tweaked that set-up slightly for the showdown with Argentina, bringing in central midfielder Brozovic for Kramaric, but the strategy remained the same: to attack. "With such great players in the team I have no right to play differently", stated Dalic.
Croatian sides have long been in the shadow of the class of ’98. Rather than temper expectations, however, Dalic’s pupils all went into Russia 2018 repeating the same objective: ‘Our goal is to reach the knockout stage’. Now Modric is calling for more: “This is our chance to do something.”
The 12th man
Croatians have flocked to Russia in their droves – and, my word, they can be heard. In Kaliningrad almost everybody in the stadium was draped in red and white checks, while the pro-Vatreni atmosphere in Nizhny Novgorod was incredible. "This is a win for everyone in the stadium and for all fans in Croatia", said Sime Vrsaljko.
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