ZAGREB • Despite Croatia's fairy-tale run to the World Cup final in July, coach Zlatko Dalic admitted that it will be difficult for the team to reach that level again.
"We are world vice-champions, we reached our peak in Russia and now everything will go down, which is normal," he told the Sportske Novosti daily.
Eight of his 22 World Cup players will be missing today - as will Cristiano Ronaldo for hosts Portugal when the two sides clash in a friendly at the Estadio Algarve Stadium in Faro.
It will be the tiny Balkan nation's first match since the side led by star midfielder Luka Modric succumbed 4-2 to France in the World Cup Final - a loss celebrated like a victory by underdogs who had never made it that far on the world stage.
For now Modric, who won the Champions League with Real Madrid and the Golden Ball for the World Cup's best player, appears to be untouchable and one of the world's best midfielders.
His reputation as a national hero was further cemented when he won the Uefa Player of the Year last month.
Both Modric and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who will skip the Portugal match, will continue to be the pillars of the "Vatreni" - Croatian for "Fiery Ones".
But they are ageing fast.
Modric turns 33 on Sunday while goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, striker Mario Mandzukic and defender Vedran Corluka all ended their international careers last month.
Dalic knows it will take time for him to rebuild the team, thus his comments about Croatia having reached their pinnacle.
But he also said that the most crucial thing is the future and not the present.
"I am not worried or restless. My goal is Euro 2020, not the match with Portugal or the Nations League... We will try to win, but our real goal is the Euro," said the 51-year-old. He sees the upcoming matches, including a Uefa Nations League match against Spain next Tuesday, as an opportunity for younger players who did not feature heavily in Russia.
They include promising midfielders Marko Rog (Napoli), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) and Mario Pasalic (Atalanta), as well as strikers Marko Pjaca (Fiorentina), Ivan Santini (Anderlecht) and Marko Livaja (AEK Athens).
In goal, Lovre Kalinic of Belgian club Gent will replace Subasic.
"We will use Portugal and Spain for real preparations, to find a new energy," added Dalic.
"Our goal is to shape... three to four new players in order to find a new energy and get to the Euro in the same shape as at the World Cup in Russia. Not weaker."