Dejan Lovren was ebullient, bullish.
Croatia had survived falling behind, supposed fatigue and a third successive extra time to put away England and progress to the World Cup final. A first World Cup final in the country’s short history.
They won 2-1 at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday, a mighty effort in Moscow when for 45 minutes the tournament seemed simply to have caught up with them. But Mario Mandzukic caught England napping, scored late, late on, and Croatia were through.
Up against a better-rested side and the spectre of their 1998 bronze-medal predecessors, they found a way. Afterwards, captain Luka Modric rounded on the English media, saying they had underestimated Croatia; right-back Sime Vrsaljko labelled England a long-ball side. Croatia were obviously stung by perceived criticism. Lovren continued the theme.
“It feels incredible, especially after everything that was said about us before the game," said the Liverpool centre-back, himself used to having detractors. “We showed our character, we showed that we deserved to be in the final and people should respect us.
“Before this game they said we are tired, but we showed in extra time we had fresher legs than them. Simple as that. Not just the English press, I am saying from the beginning.
“It is just sometimes it is unfair. Like in my case when you are talking about me. People should respect me also. But from today everyone in Croatia and around the world thinks that we managed to make history today. It is special history when you look back and see three times 120 minutes and we had fresher legs than that England team.”
Asked what the difference between the two sides was, Lovren replied: “Mentally. Because we knew we could write history today and we did it. Now there is only one game left to make it for ever. In 20 years’ time, people will remember us, and not just the team from 1998. This is what I wanted. This is why I am proud. You deserve this."
On Sunday, Lovren will contest a World Cup final against France less than two months after participating in the Uefa Champions League showpiece with Liverpool. He was criticised heavily last season before turning around his form, but believes now he has proved to be one of the world’s best defenders.
“I think I have done that, without being arrogant,” said Lovren, who defended Modric for not playing with his typical command against England. “It was fatigue. Three times in 10 days 120 minutes, it is not so easy. Modric showed today that he is the No 1 midfielder in the world.”
Now France stand between Croatia and football’s No 1 trophy. Sunday's encounter is a repeat of the 1998 semi-final, when the French triumphed 2-1 to go on and lift the trophy on home soil.
“I was nine and I remember my mum was screaming and crying after the French game," Lovren said. "Maybe it’s our time for revenge. It's going be a tough game, it will be difficult, but we have a good chance to give them something back for 20 years ago when they reached the final and we can do it.
“France are definitely the favourites, there is no hiding that, but we like that. We love to be the underdogs from day one. [Kylian] Mbappe is one of the best wingers or strikers in the world, and his speed makes him so unpredictable. But we have played, and I have played, against the biggest players in the world and managed to keep them out. It will be a big challenge, but I believe in this team.
“I said after the Argentina group game [Croatia won 3-0] that I had a good feeling. People were mocking of us, but I felt we could do something.”
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