KALININGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is confident he has the perfect mix of youth and experience as his team gear up for their World Cup Group D opener against Nigeria on Saturday.
Croatia have failed to advance past the group stage since their debut as an independent country at the 1998 World Cup in France, where they finished third.
Although drawn in a tough group in Russia with Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland, they believe they have what it takes to make the knockout rounds.
Labelled as the best Croatian squad since the 1998 group, they will once again need to deal with lofty expectations.
“We have a very good set of players who are the driving forces of big clubs and young players, it’s a good mixture of youth and experience,” Dalic told a news conference on Friday.
“It is right that expectations are high and we expect from ourselves more than anybody else.
“I hope we will prove all those flattering epithets right and that this generation will get a result with some luck along the way. We are full of self-belief and ready to show some good football.”
With Argentina expected to top the group, a defeat on Saturday would probably leave the losers to the brink of elimination, but Croatia insist they will play freely.
“We have our own style, we play a football of possession, we are offensive and we won’t give that up to adapt to Nigeria,” Dalic said.
“I believe in our players and I don’t want to limit their creativity. It is our biggest advantage.”
The perfect symbol of Croatia’s creativity, midfielder Luka Modric said he was unfazed by the news of his club Real Madrid poaching Julen Lopetegui from the Spanish national team to replace Zinedine Zidane.
“I saw what happened in Spain but I think that this is not related to my national team and right now I’m only focussed on my national team,” he said.
“If we go through the group stage, then everything is possible.”
Writing by Julien Pretot in Rostov-on-Don, Editing by Ed Osmond