Zlatko Dalic interview: Al Ain helping Croatian deal with 2018 World Cup qualification pressure

In an exclusive conversation with John McAuley, the former Al Ain manager says he is determined to make up for the UAE club's Asian Champions League final defeat by guiding his native Croatia to the World Cup finals in Russia

Soccer Football - 2018 World Cup Qualifications - Europe - Ukraine vs Croatia - NSC Olimpiyskiy, Kiev, Ukraine - October 9, 2017   Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic celebrates with Ivan Rakitic after the match   REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko - RC1255FC1B50
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As Zlatko Dalic prepares for one of the most important moments in his managerial career, he casts his mind back to another.

It is almost a year since the Croat's Al Ain side were defeated 3-2 on aggregate by Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the Asian Champions League final, when Douglas missed the penalty and the UAE's only continental champions were denied a second crown.

Dalic left less than three months later, bringing to a close three years in which he guided Al Ain to 2014 President’s Cup success and to the 2014/15 Arabian Gulf League title. He has since taken the reins of the Croatia national team, appointed at the 11th hour last month and charged with leading a team containing Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to next summer’s World Cup.

On Thursday, Croatia host Greece in the first leg of a final play-off, with the return match three days later in Piraeus. The maths are easy: win the decisive double-header and Dalic and his country go to Russia.

Al Ain’s Champions League disappointment drives him.

AL AIN , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Nov 26 , 2016 : Dejected players of Al Ain after Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors ( KOR ) beat Al Ain in the AFC Champions League 2016 at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Sports. Story by John McAuley. ID No - 37503 *** Local Caption ***  PS2611- AFC FOOTBALL11.jpg
Al Ain players understandably dejected after being beaten by Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the ACL final. Pawan Singh / The National

“Always I’m thinking about this final, because it was a big chance for me and a big chance for Al Ain,” Dalic says from Croatia’s team base in Zagreb. “Still I am sad because we didn’t deserve to lose such a match.

"But of course, I take something from this moment, especially personally. I must use it. I must be calm, be quiet, push my team to play fair football. But always, always, this final stays in my mind.”

It feels particularly poignant now.

Dalic has had little time to catch breath, parachuted in last month as Croatia's group campaign threatened to falter at the final hurdle. Ante Cacic was dismissed following the 1-1 draw against Iceland in the penultimate round of matches and, requiring victory three days later in Ukraine to at least seal a play-off spot, the Croatian football federation turned to Dalic.

With 48 hours to prepare, he guided his side to a 2-0 win in Kiev. He was quickly inundated with messages of congratulations from the UAE.


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"I’m very, very happy and proud because I received a lot of messages, to Twitter, Instagram, my phone,” Dalic says. “Also from the club, from Ibrahim Diaky, Amer Abdulrahman, Ismail Ahmed. Believe me, I was so, so proud when I got messages from these players.

"Everyone was happy because I took this job. It is also good for Al Ain that now I’m the coach of one of the best national teams in the world, going from Al Ain to a big team. But, really, I’m very happy because I know everyone there watched the game against Ukraine and will watch again against Greece. They’ll be my support. I really, really appreciate it.”

Dalic will hope for similar correspondence come Sunday night.

He has studied Greece extensively, spoken as well to Belgium manager Roberto Martinez and Bosnia and Herzegovina counterpart Mehmed Bazdarevic, whose teams met the 2004 European champions in the group stages.

Greece finished second to Belgium in their pool, defeated only once in 10 matches. They conceded six goals.

“I know everything about this team,” Dalic says. “A very strong team, a very difficult team, who play defensive football. Always, they are at 0-0 or 1-0 and waiting for a free kick or a corner. They play a very disciplined and organised game. Michael Skibbe is a very strong coach.”

Zlatko Dalic, right, enjoyed a productive partnership with Omar Abdulrahman while at Al Ain. Al Ain FC
Zlatko Dalic, right, enjoyed a productive partnership with Omar Abdulrahman while at Al Ain. Al Ain FC

Dalic preaches the importance of not conceding at the Maksimir Stadium on Thursday, that the first leg is “only half time” in the tie. However, it is also integral to his chances of remaining with Croatia beyond next week.

He has not yet signed a contract with the federation, preferring instead to see if he can first steer the team through the next two matches. A two-year offer waits on the table, but Dalic will continue only if Croatia reach Russia. It feels a pretty pressurised situation.

“Yes, a lot of pressure, but I learned at Al Ain where every week I was under pressure, from the fans, from the club, from everyone,” Dalic says.

“It’s nothing new for me. I passed everything there and not long ago I played the Asian Champions League final. It was also a big, big game for me.

“I know it’s a big pressure, but I will stay calm. I feel beautiful, because I’m coach of my national team, one of the best national teams in the world.

"I don’t need to be nervous because there’s a major game in front of me. If my team play calm and in our style we have big chance. But if I’m nervous and we play a fighting game, it’s not easy for us. Then the chance is more for Greece than us.”

Croatia’s chances increase dramatically given Modric’s presence. The Real Madrid star, the national team’s captain, will need to be at his instrumental best against Greece, much like Omar Abdulrahman was for much of Dalic’s time at Al Ain.

If Abdulrahman could not quite deliver the Champions League trophy, then Dalic hopes Modric can help clinch that World Cup place.

“Luka is also one of the best midfielders in the world," Dalic says. "It’s between two, three players. He’s a very good guy, very professional, very serious. I have a nice relationship with him, same as I had with Omar.

"Similar style of player, both my captains and I appreciate both for everything they give me and, Inshallah, I reach something with the national team.

Luka Modric, right, is one of the main players in Croatia's road to Russia campaign. Miguel A Lopes / EPA
Luka Modric, right, is one of the main players in Croatia's road to Russia campaign. Miguel A Lopes / EPA

“Taking your national team to the World Cup is the most important point in every coach’s career. It is the dream, one of the biggest achievements, one of the biggest moments, like the Asian Champions League final.

"I didn’t take that title, but now to go to the World Cup would make me very, very proud.

“I learned everything the last three years at Al Ain. They helped me so much, because I worked with big players, good players, and also in the Champions League, I played around 40 matches. Every game a big game. It was a great experience for me.

"I know now is not easy, because it’s a play-off for the World Cup. But me and my team are ready. Al Ain helped me get to this point."