Zlatko Dalic insists Croatia have 'maximum respect' for World Cup last 16 opponents Japan

Manager says he is proud of his country's performances at finals despite limited resources

Croatia's veteran midfielder Luka Modric after the 2022 World Cup match against Belgium. AFP
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Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic has urged his players not to underestimate Japan in their World Cup last-16 clash on Monday, saying respecting their opponents is of the “utmost importance”.

The 2018 runners-up take on the Asian side at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah wary of another titanic performance from their rivals.

In the group stages, Japan secured shock victories against both Spain and Germany to qualify for the knockouts as pool winners. Croatia, meanwhile, finished runner-up in their group to Morocco – although they are unbeaten in Qatar.

On Sunday, Japan defender Yuto Nagatomo called on teammates to evoke the "Samurai spirit" as they seek to make the quarter-finals for the first time in the country’s history.

Asked later on Sunday about Nagatomo’s comments, Dalic said: “What I find to be of utmost important is to demonstrate respect for our opponents. They’ve beaten two World Cup winners: Spain and Germany. They were losing each in the first half, but they showed their mentality, their mental strength, their consistency.

“What I launched as a message to my players is never underestimate anyone, respect your opponent. They will apply the Samurai philosophy in their game. We will also do our part.

“We know how important this match is for us. We know who the opponent is and their mentality. If we want to go further, we must apply that very same attitude. We do our best and never underestimate anyone. Show maximum respect for the opponent, and we will see who is the better team.”

In 2018, Dalic guided Croatia to their best finish at a World Cup, where they were beaten by France 4-2 in the final in Russia. The modest European country had never finished better than third, which they achieved in 1998.

On whether he feels it could be third time lucky this month, and that Croatia will finally land football’s most coveted prize, the former Al Ain manager said: “You think it’s time? I would, of course, love that more than anything else in the world.

"We will try. We have chances, we have opportunities, and this is a very difficult path we’re on. I’m always an optimist but this World Cup is a high-quality one.

“In the past 20 years, Croatia has played some magnificent matches. In the last 10 matches in the World Cup we have lost only one, which is a great success. Two times in a row we’ve passed the group stage - this is a great thing.

“And if you look at the countries in the round of 16, we are the smallest country with the smallest population. We are here against the odds. We will do that, that’s our dream.

"But we will take it one step at a time. We need to exercise patience. For now, the most immediate thing is the match tomorrow and then we’ll see if it will take us further. I believe we can win. First of all, we were very lucky to have qualified for the World Cup - it was our motive, our ambition. And the next ambition is to go to the next stage.”

Meanwhile, Nagatomo said recent improvements made by Japan would count for nothing unless his team display the same fearlessness they did in upsetting Germany and Spain. Japan came from behind in both matches to win 2-1.

“I think this is a great opportunity for us to show the world how we can fight like Samurai,” Nagatomo said. “Before they go into battle they polish their weapons and try to improve their techniques, but if they are scared during battle, they would not be able to use those weapons and techniques fully.

“It’s exactly the same with football – of course, the tactics and techniques are important, but no matter how much we have improved those, if we are scared when we are on the field, those things are useless.

“In order to maximise all the tactics that we have been discussing and practising for the last four years, the first condition is to have courage.”

Updated: December 04, 2022, 2:43 PM