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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 July 2018

Birthday boy Dejan Lovren wants Croatia to 'outdo' class of '98 and go beyond World Cup semi-final

Croatia made the semi-finals 20 years ago and victory over Russia on Saturday will match that feat

Dejan Lovren, right, is confident this Croatia side can go beyond the achievements of the 1998 team. Adrian Dennis / AFP
Dejan Lovren, right, is confident this Croatia side can go beyond the achievements of the 1998 team. Adrian Dennis / AFP

Dejan Lovren celebrated his 29th birthday on Thursday, but the focus in Sochi was on another time of celebration, 20 years previously.

Back then, Croatia made the semi-finals at the 1998 World Cup, their first appearance at football’s premier event since independence. They eventually finished third in France, defeating the Netherlands in the play-off for bronze, a feat still saluted, still spoken about in glowing terms.

It has become more relevant now, with Croatia 2018 on the verge of their own last-four spot at a World Cup. On Saturday, they take on hosts Russia in the quarter-final at the Fisht Olympic Stadium. They are one step from matching Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker et al. Not that reminiscences of that time are 100 per cent lucid.

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“I do not remember exactly where I was or what I was doing,” Lovren told a press conference. “I was in Munich and I can recall my mum screaming with joy every time Croatia took the lead. That's my main memory from that time.

“Of course, the team respects the '98 generation, the biggest success of national team to date. They've set the bar so high that the national team hasn't been able to top that since. But the current team is very good and they have a chance to outdo the ’98 generation with luck and hard work.”

For Lovren, this tournament offers the opportunity to make up for some personal pain two years ago. The Liverpool defender had reportedly clashed with manager Ante Cacic and subsequently was not taken to the European Championship. Like France ’98, France 2016 can spur him now.

“It was a real roller-coaster, with a lot of ups and downs,” Lovren said. “I'm sad to have missed Euro 2016, but I hope I've made things right in the last few games. I’m moving forward now and I hope to continue in the same way.”

Against Russia, Croatia will hope to maintain their miserly streak. The team have conceded only two goals thus far, a stubbornness that ensured they topped a Group D that included Argentina. In the last-16 meeting with Denmark on Sunday, they held their opponents to a 1-1 draw before penalties determined the winner.

Understandably, much like 1998, the attack and midfield has garnered the majority of headlines, with captain Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic obvious standouts. Lovren, though, is content to simply provide the platform for this sustained run through the tournament.

“In today's football, the midfield and forwards get the most credit and are most talked about,” he said. “We're just happy to do our job – not conceding goals. What's most important is that the head coach is happy with our performance.”

Speaking of the head coach, former Al Ain manager Zlatko Dalic, fellow defender Sime Vrsaljko said: “We've played good football at the World Cup. The head coach came at a difficult moment, but he's done what asked of him. He's doing well.”