NIZHNY NOVGOROD • Dejan Lovren has warned rivals that Croatia can reach the World Cup final after stunning Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.
The victory meant Croatia, 2-0 winners over Nigeria in their opener, have qualified from Group D with a game to spare. And they served notice that, with their composure and power, they are capable of going far.
"We can do better than the 1998 team, but let's see," the Liverpool defender said.
"I think we have better players than that team."
Croatia finished third in 1998, their best-ever international showing, after Golden Boot winner Davor Suker did much of the heavy lifting.
Their current side boasts the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, with Real Madrid midfielder Mateo Kovacic limited to a substitute role against Argentina.
Despite their talent, the Balkan nation have attracted little attention till now. After all, they squeezed through to the Finals only via the play-offs after eliminating Greece.
Touches by Lionel Messi in the first half, the second-lowest among the Argentinian players after striker Sergio Aguero (seven).
Coach Zlatko Dalic replaced Ante Cacic in the penultimate round of qualifying and needed victory in their final game against Ukraine just to make the play-offs.
Cacic had failed to find a system that could get the best out of Modric and Rakitic, but Dalic's 4-2-3-1 formation has managed to accommodate the pair.
Instead of employing Rakitic in front of Modric like his predecessor, the former midfielder has deployed the Barcelona star in a deep-lying role, with Real's Modric pushed further forward in a No. 10 role, unlike his more withdrawn position at club level.
The duo bossed the midfield against two-time world champions Argentina, with Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic providing width. And defensively, Croatia limited Lionel Messi and Co to few clear-cut opportunities aside from Enzo Perez's miss.
STOP MESSI, STOP ARGENTINA
We cut off the lines of passing, we wanted to avoid Messi getting the ball. I believe that we played a fantastic game.
LUKA MODRIC, Croatia captain, on his side's tactics to squeeze the supply chain.
Modric said the world No. 20 outfit deserved the victory due to their own performance rather than Argentina's failings.
"This result and Argentina's poor display was due to our good game, our compact block all over the pitch, particularly when we didn't have the ball," said the skipper after Croatia progressed past the group stages for the first time since their debut in 1998. "We cut off the lines of passing, we wanted to avoid Messi getting the ball. I believe that we played a fantastic game."
The performance has ensured that Dalic's men will no longer fly under the radar in Russia.
Croatian daily Sportske Novosti wrote: "It was a rhapsody to be remembered for years and the performance suggests that the current Croatian generation can make all our dreams come true."
Dalic confirmed that while players will be rested against Iceland, he also cautioned his squad against getting carried away with their exploits. They will need a draw in their final group game to secure top spot, and potentially avoid meeting France in the last 16 and face either Australia or Denmark instead.
"We have to be happy, we have emerged from the group. We have beaten great Argentina with the greatest player in the world, Messi," he said. "However... we have to be humble, dignified, put in a good shift as a team.
"No one is happier than I am, but I have to keep calm and composed, feet on the ground."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE