NIZHNY NOVGOROD (Reuters) - Croatia’s coach and captain hailed their “fantastic” World Cup so far and declared themselves ready to beat Denmark on Sunday in a quest to emulate their predecessors’ greatest triumph two decades ago.
Free-flowing Croatia romped through the group stage with three wins out of three, setting up the last-16 clash with the Danes at the same Nizhny Novgorod Stadium where nine days ago they stunned Lionel Messi’s Argentina 3-0.
“We’ve played fantastically in the group stage. We must be proud of that. But for this new game, we must forget all that went before,” said captain Luka Modric, a 12-year-old when Croatia reached the semi-final in France in 1998.
“It is a stern test for us, but it is high time that this generation hurdles this obstacle which we haven’t hurdled since 1998. I expect us to be capable of doing that ... We are full of self-confidence.”
Though Croatia are favorites on Sunday, and are some people’s surprise pick to win the whole tournament, coach Zlatko Dalic said Denmark’s solid team play and strong defense should not be under-estimated.
“We have the highest possible respect for the Danish team. The fact they have gone 18 games unbeaten speaks volumes,” he said. “What awaits us is a very difficult match ... The group stage will mean nothing if we do not verify that tomorrow.”
With the exception of a winter-tour squad consisting of home-based players only, the Danes have not lost since a 1-0 defeat to Montenegro in October 2016.
Modric, who has already scored two goals, will be expected once again to pull the strings for Croatia from midfield.
Asked whether his captain could win player-of-the-tournament, as France were knocking out Argentina on Saturday, Dalic said: “It’s not going to go to Messi ... I would be the happiest man in the world if it were Luka because it would have meant Croatia did something significant.”
It was important, however, to remember the work of an entire team and the many staff behind them, he said. “We are not just PlayStation players twiddling the joystick.”
The 51-year-old Bosnian-born coach, who played as a midfielder for many clubs in the former Yugoslavia and Croatia, said he was having the time of his life in Russia.
“Irrespective of what comes next, these are the best days of my career, whatever the result tomorrow,” he said.
Fans will be waiting to see who comes out on top between Modric, and Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s standout player.
“I don’t like to compare players, particularly to myself,” Modric said when asked about the duel.
“Eriksen is a world-class player. He has had a fantastic season at Tottenham, and I am sure he is (Denmark’s) best player. But I think what will decide the game tomorrow will be how teams perform.
“No individual can do it all on their own.”
Additional reporting by Phil O'Connor; Editing by Neville Dalton