Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic says the match against Argentina on Thursday will be his side’s easiest Group D encounter given they have nothing to lose against "one of the best teams in the world".
The former Al Ain manager leads his team into the second of their three World Cup pool fixtures, where victory at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium would almost seal a place in the last 16. Croatia opened their campaign on Saturday with a 2-0 win against Nigeria.
Argentina should, in theory, represent Croatia’s most difficult opponents given they boast a number of talented players headlined by captain Lionel Messi. However, the Barcelona forward missed a penalty in their opener against Iceland at the weekend as Jorge Sampaoli’s side were held to a 1-1 draw.
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That has cranked up the pressure on Argentina, leaving Dalic to look forward to what promises to be a gripping clash in Novgorod.
“This is going to be the easiest match for us because we have nothing to lose,” said the Croat, who managed Al Ain for three years until February last year. “We are playing a great team, but we’re also a good team. It’s going to be a match that could go other way.
“The pressure on us is less because we have three points in the bag. In our next two matches we have to win once. If we play for a draw we are not going to take it. If we play for a win then we may get a result.
“This is going to be a fight between two great teams. I’ll tell my players just before they go onto the pitch to enjoy it because they’re playing against Messi and Argentina.”
Irrespective of that, Dalic warned against concentrating too much on Messi. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner, widely regarded as the finest footballer in history, has not enjoyed anywhere near the same success with his country as he has his club.
Sitting alongside Messi’s Barcelona teammate, Ivan Rakitic, at the pre-match press conference on Wednesday, Dalic said: “I share my opinion with Ivan that Messi’s the best in the world. No single player can stop him. Our formation, our team game can stop him. This is the only way. And to cut him off from the ball.
“But Argentina is not just Messi; they have plenty of good players. We shouldn’t fall into this trap of focusing on Messi. We have to be compact, we have to be tight.
“We are playing one of the best teams in the world. We have a great deal of respect for them, but we also respect ourselves. For us, it’s going to be a great match, a great challenge. But we have to believe in ourselves and show our true colours.”
Croatia’s build-up has been affected somewhat by their decision to send home Nikola Kalinic after the striker refused to come on as a substitute against Nigeria.
However, Dalic played down the issue, saying: “I’m very sorry that this happened. This is the past, we’re not dwelling on that. This lasted two or three hours. We are focusing on Argentina and life goes on.”