Having finally shaken off their World Cup hangover, finalists Croatia are aiming for their first Nations League victory when they face Spain on Thursday, the side who inflicted a 6-0 drubbing in September.
Coach Zlatko Dalic has named a 25-man squad, including three new faces, to face Spain at Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium and England on November 18 at Wembley.
“I’m focused on the match against ‘La Furia (Roja)’, we need that victory,” Dalic said earlier this month.
“I know that many people do not believe that our team is capable of winning both games but I reply — we will do now as we did in Russia, step by step.
“First, Spain,” he told the Jutarnji List newspaper.
Croatia, a country of 4.2 million people, reached the World Cup final for the first time, inspired by playmaker Luka Modric, and despite losing 4-2 to France Dalic and his players were welcomed home as heroes.
But only two months later “Vatreni” — Croatian for “Fiery Ones” — suffered the humiliation of the thrashing by Spain in their first Nations League match.
They improved to draw 0-0 with England in a rematch of the World Cup semi-final, but the game was played in eerie silence at an empty stadium in Rijeka.
UEFA banned fans from the game over the carving of a swastika into a pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy. That was just the latest in a litany of offences for racism that has seen Croatia consistently punished.
– ‘Fresh blood’ –
Because of the lockout against England, Thursday’s match will be Modric’s first in front of his home fans since the World Cup.
After a superb year that landed him the FIFA player of the year award, the Real Madrid player was nearing full fitness, Dalic said.
“After a year of excellent games he cannot be constantly in good shape.
“I never had doubts about Luka … he is the leader and he will be at a high level.”
Dalic, who repeatedly stressed that his main goal was to qualify for the Euro 2020, said the team was motivated by a wish for revenge.
“The match, our approach and our fitness will be completely different” compared to the demolition by Spain, he told a press conference Monday.
“We are in much better shape than then. It was a debacle and we need to look for revenge… with three points.” Dalic has rejuvenated the squad with three young players — forwards Josip Brekalo and Nikola Vlasic and defender Duje Caleta-Car.
Brekalo, who plays for Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg, is set to make his debut against Spain.
“I’m always saying we need fresh blood,” Dalic said.
Cheering from the stands will be striker Mario Mandzukic, defender Vedran Corluka and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, who all retired from international football after Russia.
It will be an opportunity for the trio to bid a symbolic farewell in front of their home fans.