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MOSCOW: Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic attends a press conference at the Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday.—Reuters
MOSCOW: Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic attends a press conference at the Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday.—Reuters

A DAY after their historic victory over England, it was time for reflection. Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic had spoken less than 24 hours ago in the team jersey at the same press conference room where he sat on Thursday.

He had dwelled on the triumph for some time and now it was the time to look forward to taking the last step, that he sits at this seat here at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday when this month-long festival of football ends with the World Cup trophy by his side.

After Croatia’s enthralling come-from-behind 2-1 victory in extra-time against England, Luka Modric had spoken of the team being fired up because of English media’s lack of respect. Dalic, however, said it played a little part.

“Maybe the players were motivated by that but our motivation was very high nevertheless,” he said. “We always respect our opponents and expect them to respect us back. The English media disregarded that our players play at really big clubs. But this is football … this is sport. You have to be dignified in both victory and in defeat.”

It was some win for Croatia on Wednesday at the Luzhniki. They had arrived to the game after two energy-sapping, exhausting penalty shootout wins against Denmark and Russia, falling behind in both games. They fell behind here as well as England absolutely battered them in the first half.

It seemed the exertions of the previous two games had taken its toll. But they found a way in the second half and it was exhilarating. Ivan Persic’s great desire saw him nip ahead of England defender Kyle Walker and poke in from Sime Vrsjalko’s cross in the 68th minute and then Mario Mandzukic struck with a brilliant finish in the 109th as England were well and truly beaten.

“In such games, when you’re 1-0 down, the most dangerous thing is if your lines break down,” he said. “We were lucky in certain moments but we also showed character. Therefore, we deserved this luck. Most of my players play at some of the top clubs in Europe but the motivation, the character, the mental strength that might have been lacking before hasn’t been shown at the World Cup.”

Mandzukic described the triumph miraculous. “It’s a miracle,” Manzukic told the pitch-side cameras. “Only great teams can be as brave as we were and fight back from a goal down against teams like England. We were like lions out there and we will be the same in the final.”

Mandzukic was the man who was very much overlooked by the English media before the match. For them, the threats were the midfield axis of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Yet, fatigued and injured, after a collision with England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, he soldiered on and was rewarded when Kyle Walker couldn’t properly deal with a cross and Perisic headed the ball back into the danger area for Mandzkic to find that yard of space where he could drive a left-foot shot across goal and into the back of the net.

“We knew what was at stake and how important the semi-final is for a country like Croatia,” said Perisic. “We started slowly but we showed our character and again came from a goal behind.”

In a game where much was talked about Modric and Rakitic being the difference makers, it was Perisic who was the catalyst for the Croatian victory. He drove them in the second-half, running at the English defence and also struck the post after levelling the game.

“Twenty years ago, I was back at home in my hometown and I rooted for Croatia wearing the Croatian jersey,” he said. “I could only dream of playing for my country and scoring one of the most important goals to reach the final.”

The game Perisic was talking about was the 1998 World Cup semi-final between Croatia and France. For years, the barometer for success for future Croatian players was that team. Perisic’s side has gone a step ahead and they play France in the final on Sunday, the team that inflicted a 2-1 defeat two decades ago.

“France stopped us in the semi-finals then so we will definitely have some extra motivation,” said Perisic. “They’re the favourites but we will do our best to surprise them. We have three days to prepare ourselves. Our dream is so close now.”

After playing 120 minutes in three matches, including two mentally-straining shootouts, Croatia have just four days to recover for the final, one less than the French. Dalic, however, believes, it won’t count for much.

“Yes, the players were exhausted after the game yesterday,” said Dalic. “We don’t have an assessment yet but I think all are fine. We had many problems before the England match but none of the players wanted to be subbed. There can be no excuses now though. This is the World Cup final. We have to give our best and be fit. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play a World Cup final. It’s been difficult for us but I’m sure we will find the strength and motivation.”

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2018