The former Al Ain manager proud of his side's run to the last 16 at World Cup but remains ambitious for further progress
Relaxed Zlatko Dalic ready for Croatia's date with destiny against Denmark
Zlatko Dalic cut a relaxed figure, seemingly unburdened by what was to come, by the billing bestowed upon his team, or the stakes at play.
The Croatia manager faced the media in Nizhny Novgorod on Saturday, 24 hours from his side’s “do-or-die” clash with Denmark, a match that will determine who carries on to the World Cup quarter-finals and who does not.
To this point, Croatia have been outstanding in Russia, one of only two sides to take maximum points from three group matches.
They have collected many more admirers as they have gone, mentioned now among the favourites in Russia for the title. Third, in 1998, represents Croatia’s best result to date at a World Cup.
Yet for all the talk of matching that or even better – defender Dejan Lovren believes this side are more talented – and the pressure that engenders, Dalic appears perfectly at ease with it all.
He joked with journalists and Luka Modric, his captain sat to his right. He spoke of handling the stress and the strain.
He conceded that, even though he exudes typically a cool facade, that nothing would give him more joy than guiding his country deeper into the tournament. He is proud, but he wants more.
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“Outwardly I must be calm, my experience as a coach has taught me that,” said the former Al Ain manager, who spent three years in the Garden City until February last year.
“For the past six months I’ve been trying to find the solutions to reach the basic objective and emerge from the group. That was a huge deal of pressure I put on myself.
“But then I said to myself this is not enough, because without me or with me this team is worth much more. This is not the final destination. However, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved over the past month, very proud of the reaction back home.
"And this is due to the players. A coach’s job is to give an advice or two, but nothing is without the players. And this is why I’m so proud to be part of that. And, tomorrow, if we play well we will have achieved a great thing for ourselves, for our families and for our Croatia. This is what keeps me going.
"I must be calm, but there’s a struggle inside me. If the dear lord allows tomorrow, we will be overjoyed. If not, I’ll be proud of the time I spent with these lads. Irrespective of what comes next, these are going to be the best days of my career, whatever the result tomorrow.”
Sunday’s test is clear. Denmark may not be one of the competition’s primary teams, but they have talent in particular in Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Christian Eriksen, and a grit underlined by an undefeated streak that stretches back almost 20 Fifa-official matches.
“We have the highest possible respect for the Danish team,” Dalic said.
“The fact they went 18 games unbeaten speaks volumes about their quality. They are disciplined, solid, organised, they know what to do and how to do it at any moment on the pitch. What awaits us is a very difficult match.
“Of course, it’s down to us how we play. We have to be very cautious, be patient throughout the game and wait for our chances. We have a great deal of respect for our opponent tomorrow. It will be a very tough match.”
That accentuates with the increasing weight of expectation, too.
“We have no pressure coming from the outside,” Dalic said. “Our greatest pressure comes from ourselves. We’ve come to perform well, to achieve what we achieved in the group stage. We played well. But it will mean nothing if we do not verify that tomorrow.
“The group stage is behind us. It gives us some security and confidence in our ability, but we should not dwell on that any more. We have a job cut out for us tomorrow.
“As always, I’m optimistic, fully confident in the team and the squad. It’s nice to hear we’re being recognised as a team who’s played well in the group. But let me reiterate: it will mean nothing if we do not verify that tomorrow.”