Zlatko Dalic says the UAE will always be close to his heart as his Gulf coaching spell helped shape his pursuit of World Cup glory.
Just 18 months ago the Croatian left the Emirates when a three-year stint as coach of Al Ain ended after he came so close to making them Asia’s best club side.
A missed penalty by Douglas was crucial in an agonising 3-2 AFC Champions League final loss on aggregate to Korean outfit Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2016.
Now Dalic stands on the brink of the greatest achievement of all, having led his national team to a World Cup semi final against England.
But when the 51-year-old steps out at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow tonight, he will recall how his seven-year Arabian adventure helped shape this momentous achievement.
First with Saudi Arabian clubs Al-Faisaly and Al Hilal and then at Al Ain in 2014, where he was immediately under pressure to restore their fortunes after struggles with Jorge Fossati and Quique Sanchez Flores.
Dalic duly delivered with the UAE President’s Cup, the Arabian Gulf League title and Arabian Gulf Super Cup before Champions League heartbreak.
“I’m very happy with my time in the Gulf, it was fantastic, I learned and enjoyed so much,” he told Sport360. “I will never forget the Emirates, never forget Al Ain, it is my club.
“I spent three years there and won the Champions League, also reached the semi finals, and after that I came to the national team. It was a big change for me, but now I’m in the World Cup. It’s a dream, I’m so happy.”
After a struggle in qualification, Dalic was appointed in October and sparked Croatia into a second-placed finish behind Iceland with a vital win over Ukraine and subsequent play-off success against Greece.
“How it all happened, it is fantastic,” he added. “But this is life, this is what you work for.
“This is the national team, this is my country and this is the World Cup. This is the best job for me, forever.
“In the future I can be coach of Brazil or wherever, but this will still be the best job for me and I want to do well in this.”
Dalic is certainly doing well, matching his country’s best-ever achievement of a last-four spot in the 1998 finals, where they were beaten by hosts France.
Thank you for supporting my National team Croatia!🇦🇪🇸🇦🇭🇷 pic.twitter.com/r4m4nqxtF1— Zlatko Dalić (@DalicZlatko) 10 July 2018
But, with players like Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, he always felt they could “surprise”. “I believe in the team,” he said.
Captain Modric, who helped Real to a third successive Champions League trophy in May, will be a key figure against Gareth Southgate’s men.
At 33, he is an example to every young footballer according to teammate Vedran Corluka.
“It’s all down to hard work,” said the defender of Modric. “After the game, before the game, he looks after his body. This is a professional player and every young player needs to look at Luka and how they need to look after their body and to be at this level.
“He won the Champions League, but playing for your club is something different to the national team. It’s about Croatian passion. It’s a special feeling to play for your country and Luka feels the same and wants to help us do well.”
Midfielder Paul Pogba has dedicated France’s World Cup semi-final win over Belgium to the young footballers rescued from flooded caves after an 18-day ordeal in Thailand.
Samuel Umtiti’s second-half goal in St Petersburg was enough to get Les Bleus past Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils and into Sunday’s Moscow final against either England or Croatia.
The players were quick to express their emotion at the result on social media after the full-time whistle.
Pogba posted a picture on Instagram of the 12 boys, aged between 11 and 17, who entered the Tham Luang cave system in Chiang Rai province with their 25-year-old coach on June 23 and became trapped when heavy rain cut off their way out.
He wrote alongside it: “This victory goes to the heroes of the day, well done boys, you are so strong #thaicaverescue #chiangrai”
The Manchester United man also indicated there was still work to do for Didier Deschamps’ side in Russia, saying of Tuesday night’s victory: “It’s great but it’s not finished.”
Forward Kylian Mbappe posted some action pictures from the match and said “WHAT A DREAM”.
Defender Raphael Varane simply posted a picture of himself celebrating alongside the words: “En finale.”
Fellow defender Lucas Hernandez was similarly joyous, saying simply: “Direction … LA FINALLLLLLLEEE !!”
Former England striker Chris Sutton, working as a World Cup pundit, accused Belgium of “bottling” it on the big stage and stuck the knife into goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who had suggested England counterpart Jordan Pickford was too short to be a great keeper.
He wrote on Twitter: “France deserved it … Varane and Umtiti outstanding defenders, Mbappe the star of the World Cu, Belgium bottled it once again in a big tournament… big guy Courthois beaten at his near post… I think little Pickford would have saved it…”
Belgium defender Thomas Meunier gave credit to France and turned his attention to Saturday’s play-off clash. His tweet read: “Hats off to @equipedefrance for qualification. Go to the end now! As for us, we still have a game! Write the history of Belgian football with a magnificent 3rd place! Saturday will be #REDTOGETHER!”
Alex Witsel is also keen for Roberto Martinez’s side to claim third place and the midfielder paid tribute to supporters who made the trip, sentiments echoed by winger Yannick Carrasco and striker Michy Batshuayi.
Jordan Henderson is desperate to extend his record-breaking unbeaten run and help England reach the World Cup final.
Gareth Southgate’s men have ripped up the script over a remarkable a month that now sees them preparing for a semi-final clash against Croatia.
It has seen widespread apathy towards the Three Lions replaced by excitement and renewed hope, with previously unheralded players stepping up and better-known names underlining their quality and in some cases changing perceptions.
Henderson is among those to have quietened the doubters this summer, with the Liverpool captain shining in a side that is now preparing to line up at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday.
“It’s a special feeling to know that people back home and out here in Russia are enjoying the experience just as much as we are,” the midfielder said on the eve of the game.
“All the celebrations and the songs they’re singing back home, it inspires us as players to be able to sort of bring the nation together and put smiles on people’s faces.
“I think that’s the biggest thing so far to come out of it and we just want to continue doing everybody proud.”
There is no doubt that pride has been restored regardless of the outcome on Wednesday, when Henderson’s selection is a good omen.
The 28-year-old has not tasted defeat in an England shirt since the last World Cup four years ago, going on a 30-match unbeaten run that is the longest of any player in the country’s history.
“Someone mentioned it the other day to us,” Henderson said with a smile. “But, to be honest, I wouldn’t really look too much into it because I don’t win on my own. We win as a team.
“Just as much as if I played and we lost every match, I don’t think it would be my fault either. Of course, I want to win. We want to win as a team. But it’s not down to any individual or one player.
“It’s down to us as a team. It’s down to what we do behind the scenes, what we work on in training, all the hard work to get here. The whole squad, even people who aren’t here that have chipped in for us to be in this situation now.
“That’s what I have a focus on. The biggest thing for me is just continuing to win – and hopefully a few more wins over the next week.”
That focus on collective success over individual achievement has been key to England’s success this summer, putting them within touching distance of joining the heroes of 1966 as the only team to make a World Cup final.
Henderson takes “a lot of good things from the past in terms of 66 and what they achieved then” but is not getting ahead of himself given the threat posed by Croatia.
“I’ll obviously speak to the forwards and tell them what I think,” Henderson said. “But, at the end of the day, Dejan is a fantastic defender.
“I think he’s had his fair share of criticism over the last year or so, but he’s done so well over the last six months, really, especially after the start of the season.
“He’s suffered a lot of a criticism but he’s bounced back so well.
“For me, he’s got everything a centre-half needs: he’s aggressive, good in the air, can play out from the back, good on the ball and he’s a real leader as well, which is massive as a defender, always talking.
“I’m so pleased for him because he’s a great person as well. A great character off the field and in the dressing room.
“So, I’m pleased for him that he’s in a semi-final of a World Cup, but hopefully that journey for him ends tomorrow.
“I am very close to him at Liverpool and wish him all the best – but, like I say, hopefully that journey for him ends tomorrow.”