Zlatko Dalic, from angry Al Ain fans' mock airline ticket, to booking a place in the World Cup final with Croatia

Matt Jones 8/07/2018
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From managerial icons Hector Cuper, Joachim Low and Oscar Tabarez to fine footballers turned coaches like Didier Deschamps, Fernando Hierro and Aliou Cisse – the 32 teams at the 2018 World Cup have been led by some figures who truly belong to the pantheon of football legends.

Zlatko Dalic’s name, on the other hand, wouldn’t have been widely known outside of Croatia before the tournament – except for a few quiet, sandy regions of the Middle East.

Croatia’s nickname is Vatreni (The Blazers) and Dalic will don a metaphorical cloak of invincibility if the former Al Ain coach can lead his men into the World Cup final.

Invincibility is a concept that would have felt alien to him despite three trophy-laden years at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium from 2014-17 – Dalic’s exalted reputation quickly crumbled towards the twilight of his time in charge of the Boss.

This despite the fact he stabilised the club, returning it to success after a rocky eight-month spell under first Jorge Fossati and then Quique Sanchez Flores following Cosmin Olaroiu’s shock resignation and defection to fellow UAE powerhouses Al Ahli in July 2013.

The Romanian was previously worshipped, the club’s most successful manager in a decade.

Frenchman Bruno Metsu won back-to-back domestic championships, a Super Cup and the coveted AFC Champions League title at the helm between 2002-4.

Dalic won three trophies at Al Ain, but he was quickly turned against.

Dalic won three trophies at Al Ain, but he was quickly turned against.

Olaroiu won two Arabian Gulf League titles and an Arabian Gulf Super Cup between 2011-13, meaning he was always going to be a tough act to follow.

Dalic was walking into the lion’s den when he arrived in March 2014 – particularly after the farces of Fossati and Flores – but rapidly turned things around.

He led the club into the knockout rounds of the 2014 Champions League, the first time the Boss had reached that stage in eight years.

He won the President’s Cup two months after taking charge, beating Olaroiu’s league champions Al Ahli 1-0 in the final, then delivered the AGL title in 2014/15 and the Super Cup at the beginning of the following campaign.

A second Champions League crown was ripped from their grasp when they suffered heartbreak in November 2016’s final, losing 3-2 on aggregate to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Despite taking the club to such heady heights, that defeat proved the catalyst for a drastic plummet, with Dalic the protagonist.

He had helped Al Ain soar, but one disgruntled fan memorably printed a mock one-way plane ticket back to Croatia with his name on it during a league game as things soon soured. He was sacked in January 2017.

All that hurt and humiliation must seem a distant memory now for Dalic, who is on the brink of achieving hero status back home, having established himself as an elite tactician and motivator this summer.

France ’98 will be remembered for Croatia’s glittering debut on football’s grand stage, their golden generation richly deserving of their third-place finish – behemoths Germany and the Netherlands dispatched along the way.

Following 20 years of mediocrity, Croatia’s glow is now golden once again.

Rakitic scored the winning penalty for the second shootout in a row.

Rakitic scored the winning penalty for the second shootout in a row.

Dalic took over a flagging campaign and breathed life into it last October, two defeats and a draw from four games turned around terrifically with two victories and a draw securing a route to Russia.

He made bold moves. Captain Luka Modric was taken out of his comfort zone and pushed into a more attacking role which reaped immediate dividends.

Eintracht Frankfurt flyer Ante Rebic, who wasn’t a favourite under former coach Ante Cacic, was brought back in from the cold, and he’s been one of the unsung heroes of this campaign.

As Croatia have edged to the brink of surpassing their World Cup debut, something that has flown under the radar are the issues Dalic has had to deal with away from the pitch.

Striker Nikola Kalinic was sent home after the first game because he reportedly refused to come off the bench against Nigeria. There were even rumours that Dalic’s 38-year-old assistant coach and former Bayern Munich and national team striker Ivica Olic was training with the players in preparation for being named as the AC Milan misfit’s replacement in the 23-man squad.

Off the field, the fraud trial of Zdravko Mamic – whose brother Zoran (part of that 1998 World Cup squad) replaced Dalic as Al Ain boss – threatened to derail their World Cup blueprint, especially with captain Modric and centre-back Dejan Lovren also implicated.

Croatia's players celebrate after Ivan Rakitic's penalty sent them into the World Cup semi-finals.

Croatia’s players celebrate after Ivan Rakitic’s penalty sent them into the World Cup semi-finals.

All this drama, however, instead galvanised the squad, with Dalic the glue keeping it all together. But you would hardly have known anything was amiss off the pitch.

Dalic delivered one of the finest Croatia performances ever in the 3-0 thumping of Argentina in the group stage, arguably the finest performance of the tournament thus far.

Despite the epic result, Dalic was irked after the match when La Albiceleste coach Jorge Sampaoli failed to congratulate or even greet him at the final whistle.

“I have never left the pitch before shaking hands with the coach of the opponent whether I won or lost. I even gave him a Croatian kit before the game. Now I hope he will remember it forever.”

Dalic has certainly made a lasting impression during the course of the last month. Lead Croatia to a maiden World Cup final and even an inaugural title, and he is unlikely to ever be forgotten.

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Lionhearted Harry Maguire is the living embodiment of England's dream World Cup run

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If England were to defy the odds, silence their critics and make an unprecedented appearance in the latter stages in Russia, a certain Harry would need to play a starring role.

England have defied the odds, critics have become believers – cue the familiar if not inescapable “It’s Coming Home” song – and only Croatia stand in their way of a first World Cup final since they last won it in 1966. However, which Harry is playing the leading role is up for debate.

As captain, star striker and front-runner for the Golden Boot, Harry Kane should be the undisputed headline grabber. Yet, the less fancied Harry Maguire is unquestionably giving him a run for his money.

While Kane has by no means been lacking in impact or contribution, three of his six goals have come from the spot and his only one from open play was unwittingly deflected in off his heel after a Ruben Loftus-Cheek strike. There have been plenty of eye-catching goals to savour at this World Cup, but a Kane special is yet to join the collection.

Harry Kane has scored six goals at the World Cup.

Harry Kane has scored six goals at the World Cup.

Maguire on the other hand has been all-action. A solid defence, equally crucial to the team’s build-up play as it is keeping opponents at bay, has laid the foundation for England’s dream run and the lionhearted Leicester City defender has been pivotal to the system.

When Gareth Southgate announced his 23-man squad for the World Cup, Maguire’s inclusion was questioned. With a semi-final clash lying in wait, a line-up without him is now unimaginable.

Not only has he made up for his perceived lack of pace with disciplined and committed defending, but his ability to bring the ball out from defence with such poise and purpose has been invaluable. Meanwhile, England’s burgeoning reputation as this World Cup’s set-piece specialists is in no small part down to Maguire’s incredible dominance in the air.

Only Artem Dzyuba (41) has won more headers than Maguire (33) at the tournament and the Three Lions have capitalised on the centre-back’s aerial supremacy. Indirect free-kicks are regularly aimed at the 6 ft 4 in defender and he invariably wins the header, which is directed back across the six-yard box – a prime example being John Stones’ goal against Panama. He plays a crucial role from corner kicks as well and buried his header expertly to score the opener against Sweden in the quarter-finals.

In the aftermath of the golden generation that only endured disappointment and humiliation to extend England’s barren run, the current crop of players have been a breath of fresh air. Apart from Raheem Sterling’s tattoo fiasco that was blown wildly out of proportion, this squad has been squeaky clean.

Stories of heart-warming journeys to the top and of a buoyant spirit in the camp have replaced those of scandal and discontent on the back pages. Kane is the only player with a high enough profile to fly in the same stratosphere that most of the golden generation occupied and his conduct has proved to be a shining example.

Maguire on the other hand epitomises the general character of the squad. He has the tendency to fly under the radar and has largely been underestimated, even foolishly undermined. Yet, with the odds stacked against him, he’s been fearless, unassuming and wholly committed.

England would love Kane to plunder goal after stunning goal and lead them to World Cup glory, but the reality is that they have to battle through gritted teeth and Maguire has been their foremost warrior.

Perhaps the semi-finals or indeed the showpiece event, will demand a moment of magic and for England’s benefit, fate may finally coax one out of Kane. However, as Commissioner Jim Gordan would say, ‘he is the Harry England deserve but not the one it needs right now.’

That title belongs to Maguire.

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Zlatko Dalic insists Croatia have enough left in the tank for England

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Zlatko Dalic celebrates after Croatia's win over Russia.

Zlatko Dalic insists his Croatia team have not run out of steam before their World Cup semi-final against England after advancing through the previous two rounds on penalties.

Dalic’s team looked exhausted as they laboured against unfancied hosts Russia for 120 minutes on Saturday night before they advanced via a shoot-out success for the second successive game.

It was a similar story in the round-of-16 against Denmark and, on the back of those two gruelling encounters, they now have just four days to prepare for an England side that beat Sweden in 90 minutes.

Yet Dalic does not fear fatigue being a factor for his players in Moscow on Wednesday night.

“Of course there is some power left for the English,” he told a post-match press conference.

“We do not want to stop, we will try to play our best game. We have two matches to play and we are very motivated. We’re giving our all. It will be a battle again but I trust us, I have belief in us.”

Dalic admired the way the Three Lions handled their business in the 2-0 success over the Swedes.

He was reluctant to identify a favourite for the tie, though, highlighting how many of those fancied to win the competition before it began such as Brazil, Germany and Spain have already been ousted.

“They breezed past Sweden, they scored twice, they were better,” Dalic added of England. “They have a young, alive, attacking team.

“There are no favourites in this World Cup – every game is 50-50 and you have to fight it out. The big teams are home. Those who are hard-working, compact, united, well-organised, they are here in Russia. This is the character of the four teams remaining in the tournament.”

Croatia’s wait to return to a World Cup semi-final has been shorter than England’s 28-year absence.

Twenty years ago, in France, a Croatian team featuring Davor Suker, Slaven Bilic and Zvonimir Boban made the last four of the competition only to be beaten by the hosts, and eventual winners, despite taking the lead.

This is the first time they have reached the knock-out phase since – and they had to qualify for Russia via the play-offs – and Luka Modric reckons their good fortune is long overdue.

“It makes us extremely proud and happy that after 20 years we’ve reached the semi-final of a World Cup,” the former Tottenham midfielder said.

“We took the difficult route, we were unlucky in previous major tournaments, particularly at Euros, but now we are collecting those debts at the World Cup this year.

“Hopefully we will go a step further than in 1998. We have all of the requisites for that – we have a great team, backroom staff, coach, and I hope we will be able to make that extra step to reach the final.”

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