In the hour of their need, Croatia have turned to a familiar face for fans of Middle Eastern football.
Zlatko Dalic, last seen exiting Al Ain in the wake of a downward spiral which followed November 2016’s dispiriting loss in the AFC Champions League final, was confirmed yesterday as the man to salvage waning hopes of the Balkan nation making World Cup 2018.
Students of his three-year spell in the Garden City will know that Croatian Football Federation [HNS] president Davor Suker has not gone for a master tactician capable of constructing an elaborate plan for Monday’s do-or-die Group I clash in Ukraine.
Neither does his self-effacing nature and absence of all-consuming ego mean a cult of personality will elicit the requisite result – this is not how the likeable 50-year-old operates.
Dalic showed throughout his time in Al Ain that simplicity is sacrosanct. With precious little time to prepare, Suker’s ailing governing body would have struggled to find a candidate boasting a better fit for the parameters in place.
The ex-Croatia Under-21s assistant is known by few. However, his methods deliver results. They brought supreme playmaker Omar Abdulrahman a long-expected AFC Player of the Year in 2016.
The club celebrated the 2013/14 President’s Cup, 2014/15 Arabian Gulf League and a run to their first Asian showpiece in 11 years, in spite of a downturn in investment.
The contrasts are no accidents to the divisive Ante Cacic this time and the combustible Spaniard Quique Sanchez Flores when called upon by the Boss in March 2014.
A tight grip was not placed on ‘Amoory’ tactically or physically. Rather, he was kept happy and allowed to express himself within the framework of a 4-2-3-1 that is de rigueur within the region.
A talented squad driven to distraction by Cacic will warmly welcome this amenable approach. Real Madrid superstar Luka Modric should not need to repeat the cutting words that followed Friday’s 1-1 draw at home to Finland, which has put Croatia in such a predicament.
Luka Modric isn’t holding back 👀 pic.twitter.com/JZfccm08zv— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 7, 2017
As Abdulrahman and Ghana centre forward Asamoah Gyan can attest, Dalic is a firm believer in attacking football. With the majority of talent found in the offensive half of the team, a goal difference of +116 from his spell at Al Ain should provide hope to the likes of Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic.
They will head to Ukraine for this cataclysmic clash eager to take the match to hosts for whom they sit level on 17 points.
As with every candidate, Dalic is far from perfect. His placid and affable nature over time can grate and be construed for a lack of killer instinct.
Fan revolt and an inability to lift Al Ain after the disappointment of losing the continental showpiece to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors led to his inexorable exit.
But these fissures will not form over the weekend. Freed from the rancour and open warfare fostered by Cacic, watch Croatia belatedly blossom.
Andrea Pirlo should have a pretty good idea of what the perfect footballer would be like – the AC Milan, Juventus, and Italy legend did a good job of living that out on the pitch.
So you can’t fault him for suggesting – whether cheekily or in all seriousness – that the ideal footballer should have his vision, and his right foot.
Andrea Pirlo’s perfect footballer 🔥 pic.twitter.com/U062LZ90ja
— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 7, 2017
His list misses out on a few things – heading ability, pace, and dribbling, for example – and quite a few great players from his time in football – Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho, and Cristiano Ronaldo, to name a few.
It’s hard to begrudge him paying tribute to his Milan teammate Gennaro Gattuso, who was the heart and soul of the early 2000s team.
Best hair, on the other hand? David Beckham probably has something to say about that.
Bayern Munich and Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said Saturday he could now be sidelined until March because he is taking longer than expected to recover from a foot operation.
Neuer was initially expecting to return in January, but he told the club’s TV station: “The wound in the foot is healing and it could take up to six months.
“It always depends on the healing process of course,” he added.
Neuer, 31, said however his rehabilitation was going well “and I’m very positive and I think it’s going to get better”.
He fractured his left foot in training in September, just weeks after returning to action following a fracture of the same foot in April during the Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid.
The prolonged absence of Neuer, the club’s captain, is another setback for Bayern who on Friday announced veteran coach Jupp Heynckes was returning to the club for a fourth stint to steady the ship following the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti.
The Italian parted company with the Bavarian giants after a 3-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League compounded a stuttering start to the Bundesliga campaign.
Germany coach Joachim Loew said he was confident Neuer would be fit in time for next year’s World Cup in Russia.
“I hope he can return as soon as possible,” Loew said. “I know Manuel can very quickly get back to fitness, which will be extremely important because he has been the best goalkeeper in the world over the last few years.”