By Andrew Cawthorne
AL RAYYAN, Qatar (Reuters) – Croatia have performed wonders to punch above their weight for so long in international football and are determined to keep their reputation going against Japan in their last-16 match at the World Cup on Monday, coach Zlatko Dalic said.
“The population of Croatia is 4 million and the results we have achieved on the world stage are miraculous,” said Dalic, whose nation were runners-up at the last World Cup and are unbeaten in three games in Qatar.
“We are continually present in tournaments and World Cups, and that itself is a great success. We have become a world football force.”
The 12th-ranked Croatians are favourites to beat 24th-ranked Japan, but the Samurai Blue astounded expectations to defeat two powerhouses and former World Cup winners, Spain and Germany, at the group stage in comebacks.
“They will apply the Samurai warrior philosophy. So will we. If we want to go further, we must apply that same attitude, do our best and never underestimate anyone,” Dalic told reporters, noting Japan’s scant possession statistics in both those wins.
“Japan have the least ball possession in the world, but they make great transition. This is the most perseverant, persistent opponent. They simply do not give up. We have a similar mentality, Japan and Croatia. We stand on equal ground.”
AGAINST THE ODDS
The coach said Croatia would fight to match or even better their performance in Russia.
“Everyone has their right to dream. In 2018, we demonstrated that dreams can come true,” he said. “In the last 20 years, Croatia have played magnificent matches. If you look at the countries in the round of 16, we are the country with the smallest population. We are here against the odds.”
Dalic singled out Croatia’s captain Luka Modric, who has again played outstandingly despite being in the twilight of his career at 37.
“I cannot compliment him enough on his performance. This will not be the last tournament he will play for Croatia. His professionalism, his good shape, his training, his working on self-improvement is unprecedented,” he said.
“We will need Luka for some time more in the future.”
Defender Borna Sosa faces fitness checks later on Sunday and remains a doubt for the Japan game.
“If he’s not up to the challenge tomorrow, we won’t take any risks. We need fully prepared players,” Dalic said.
Young defender Josko Gvardiol said he knew Japan’s spirit well from their presence in the Bundesliga where he plays.
“I know the Japanese players very well,” he added.
“They represent quite a danger. They are a fighting team. They fight to the very end. They do not surrender.”
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, editing by Ed Osmond)