By Zoran Milosavljevic
ZAGREB, May 30 (Reuters) - Croatia are determined to reach the World Cup knockout rounds for the first time since the 1998 tournament when they sent shock waves by advancing to the semi-finals, stalwart defender Vedran Corluka said on Wednesday.
The Croatians made group stage exits in 2002, 2006 and 2014, after a talent-packed generation finished third in France 20 years ago, and Corluka was confident the present crop would finally live up to expectations.
“We are tired of being billed as a talented generation which keeps flattering to deceive,” Corluka was quoted as saying by the Croatian Football Association (www.hns-cff.hr) at the team’s training camp in the coastal resort of Rovinj.
“We let ourselves and our fans down in every World Cup since the 1998 tournament, especially the last one. We have to focus on our strengths and use the good atmosphere in the dressing room as a platform.”
Croatia open their Group D campaign against Nigeria, followed by games against Argentina and Iceland.
Four years ago, they made an early exit as defeats by host nation Brazil and Mexico canceled out a 4-0 win over Cameroon.
The 32-year-old Corluka, who has made 97 international appearances, is one of five centre backs in coach Zlatko Dalic’s provisional 24-man squad and is aware that he faces a battle to make the final cut as one of them is most likely to be axed.
“We all have different qualities,” he said. “Some of us are quicker while others are stronger, but either way the coach will make the right decision no matter who he picks for the Russia-bound squad.
“The most frequent partnership I’ve had was with Domagoj Vida, but I’d be just as comfortable with Dejan Lovren who proved his worth after an excellent season at Liverpool capped by playing well in the Champions League final.”
Croatia will play warm-up games against Brazil at Anfield on June 3 and against Senegal on home soil in Osijek five days later. Corluka assessed the Brazil match as a good barometer of Croatia’s potential to make an impact in Russia.
“We will leave nothing in the tank when we face Brazil because there is no other way against an opponent of their calibre,” he said.
“Then we can start thinking about Nigeria and Argentina, our opening rivals. I am looking forward to locking horns with the phenomenal Lionel Messi, but we are now focused on the warm-up clash with Brazil.” (Reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade Editing by David Holmes)