By GERALD IMRAY
AP Sports Writer
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) – Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic’s analysis of the World Cup game against Argentina required a double take.
He said Wednesday that Argentina would be the “easiest game” for the Croatians in the group stage.
Dalic clarified: “I didn’t say that Argentina was the easiest opponent. I said that this was the easiest game for us. We have nothing to lose. We are playing against one of the best.”
Dalic argued that no one expects Croatia to beat Lionel Messi and Argentina in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday and so the pressure’s off.
“We have three points in the bag,” Dalic said.
Croatia impressed to beat Nigeria 2-0 to open its World Cup. Argentina is at the other end of the pressure spectrum. A surprising 1-1 draw with Iceland – which included a missed Messi penalty – means the South Americans desperately need to win to put their World Cup back on track.
It’s true that Croatia is the underdog in the Group D meeting, but Dalic is being modest about his team.
Argentina has Messi, sure, the player Dalic and Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic both referred to as the best in the world.
“I will just repeat once again: For me, Lionel Messi is the best player of all time,” said Rakitic, Messi’s teammate at Barcelona.
But Croatia has fabulous individuals on its team, too, specifically the midfield pairing of Rakitic and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric.
Rakitic and Dalic, full of praise for Messi and Argentina, also said that Croatia will be lifted by playing against them.
And it wasn’t necessary, Rakitic said, to use his knowledge of playing with Messi at Barcelona to advise Croatia’s defenders on how to stop him.
“What can I tell them that they don’t know?” Rakitic said. “The world knows. Messi is one of the best players in the world. He will have his moments, clearly. It is up to us to stop him, to play the right way against him, and to enjoy the match and play our best.
“It’s a beautiful thing to play against one of the best teams in the world. We are especially motivated.”
Croatia will qualify for the knockout stage with a win, which would be the first time it has made it past the group stage since reaching the semifinals and finishing third in 1998.
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