Croatia leads World Cup charge from the other side of Europe
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — What better time than a World Cup in Russia for the eastern side of Europe to win one?
Five European countries have lifted the World Cup in the tournament's 88-year history, all of them from the West.
Croatia, a nation of four million on the fringe of Eastern Europe, is threatening to change the pattern in 2018.
Impressive in the group stage to win three out of three games, including a 3-0 dismantling of Lionel Messi's Argentina , the Croatians are recognized as serious title contenders.
They are also in the supposedly easier half of the knockout stage, avoiding Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil and Belgium until the final. That July 15 final in Moscow is a real possibility for Croatia considering the form of the team and the path ahead.
"What is gone is gone now," said coach Zlatko Dalic, who wants to ensure Croatia doesn't get carried away ahead of a Round of 16 game against Denmark on Sunday. "We have to put those three (group) matches behind us, keep them in the archive somewhere. We have to focus on Denmark. This is the moment of truth."
Dalic was responding to the direct question: Can Croatia win this World Cup?
Although he avoided a direct yes or no answer, Croatia's response on the field has been in the affirmative.
"I think Croatia could surprise many," Denmark coach Age Hareide said. "You have seen them play these games at the beginning of the tournament. They look strong."
Asked to analyze Croatia's team in detail, Hareide just smiled and shook his head: "Very good. It's very good."
Built around the Real Madrid-Barcelona midfield of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Croatia outscored opponents 7-1 in group play, with the only blip a 76th-minute penalty conceded against Iceland in the last group game.
Conceding that one goal "annoyed" coach Dalic.
Croatia is strong across the field, with Liverpool's Dejan Lovren at the back and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic up front. But the 32-year-old Modric is the captain, the playmaker and the inspiration.
"When Modric plays, he makes other people better," Dalic said. "Other people have more trust in themselves when Modric is on the pitch."
Denmark's last game, a dull 0-0 draw with France that ensured both teams progressed from their group, is a sign of things to come from the Danes.
Denmark will likely play defensively and try to frustrate Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod.
"We have to be smart when we play Croatia. We have to have good organization," Hareide said.
This could be the best chance for Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic to win a World Cup. It's also likely the last chance for them. Modric is 32, Rakitic 30, and Mandzukic also 32.
FORGET ABOUT '98
Croatia's 2018 team, no matter how good, still operates in the shadow of the 1998 squad, which reached the semifinals in France on the country's World Cup debut. That was the only time before this year that Croatia made it past the group stage at the World Cup.
"We know the team from 1998 was great, they were all our idols and they showed the way for each Croatian team afterwards," Rakitic said. "But at this point we need to forget about them, with all respect to them."
Denmark has its own midfield maestro. At 18, Christian Eriksen was the youngest player at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Now 26, he gives Denmark a spark of creativity. But away from him, the team's tactics are unsubtle.
"It's not always possible to play beautiful football," said Hareide, a Norwegian and, unsurprisingly, a former defender. "We play to get a result, not necessarily to entertain."
Criticize it all you like, as many did after the goalless draw with France, it's paid off for Denmark. Hareide's team is unbeaten in its last 18 games stretching back to October 2016.
Defensive midfielder William Kvist, who punctured a lung and broke two ribs in Denmark's opening game at the World Cup against Peru two weeks ago, could return to the lineup against Croatia. He is back with the squad after treatment at home. Considering Denmark's likely plan to stifle Croatia, he'd be an important addition.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP