Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said his team faces a “daunting task” to beat France in the World Cup final after their 2-1 victory over England in extra time on Wednesday.
Mario Mandzukic struck a dramatic 109th-minute goal at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow after Ivan Perisic had cancelled out Kieran Trippier’s opener.
It was the third consecutive match that Croatia have won after being forced into extra time. They prevailed in penalty shootouts following 120 minutes against Denmark in the round of 16 and Russia in the quarterfinals.
“This World Cup will be won by a team with character,” Dalic said.
“We were 1-0 down three games in a row and came back to win each time. We have shown character. We are a nation of people who never give in, who are proud and have character.
He added: “France are top-drawer. We are facing another daunting task but we are ready for it. I’m sure everybody will be looking forward to it. I have huge respect for France.”
They have had one more day to recover than us and we have had three games in a row that have gone to extra time. But we aren’t going to make excuses. We have to play as if it’s the first game of the tournament.”
Sunday’s clash in Moscow will mark Croatia’s first appearance in the final of football’s flagship event and comes 20 years after they finished third, which until now had been their best result in the competition.
Dalic praised the attitude of his players against England, some of whom endured 120 minutes with “half a leg”.
“What the players did today, the strength, energies levels, was incredible,” he said.
“I wanted to make substitutions but nobody would come off. I have to tip my hat to our medical staff and doctors. Some players played with minor injuries today – ones that would rule them out of other games. Two played with half a leg. But nobody wanted to be subbed and they didn’t give in. That makes me proud.”
Meanwhile, England coach Gareth Southgate said his team set a “new benchmark” by narrowly falling short of a place in the World Cup final.
A superb Kieran Trippier free kick gave England an early lead in their semifinal against Croatia on Wednesday before Ivan Perisic equalized with a 68th-minute volley.
“We’ve come an incredibly long way in a short space of time,” Southgate told a press conference after the match. “The whole thing is beyond where we thought we might go. Tonight we weren’t quite there. But the team will be stronger for it.
“We want to be a team who are hitting quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals. That’s what we aimed to do in the long-term. We’ve proved to ourselves and our country that is possible.
“Now we have a new benchmark, a new level of expectation, a new scenario. But many of these players have come of age on an international stage. I couldn’t be prouder with what they’ve done.
“For everybody in our party, I wanted them to create memories that are with them forever, for them and for others. I think we’ve all had an incredible experience. For me, that’s what sport should be about. You give everything you have, build friendships with your team, give everything for your country and play in a way that you hope connects with the fans. The players have played and conducted themselves in a manner that has absolutely done that.
“If we’ve brought joy back home, which I know we have, then that’s been worthwhile. We should be proud of that. We’re hugely disappointed not to take the country one step further and give them everything they hoped for. But, in time, I’m sure we’ll reflect upon the progress we’ve made.”
Southgate admitted that Croatia deserved to win, having dominated for long periods of the match after Trippier’s goal.
“Croatia are an excellent team with some outstanding players,” he said. “A lot of them have been involved in important matches. We knew they would fight for everything. We had to withstand a very difficult onslaught in the second half.
“We managed to get through that and regain our composure. But great credit to them they created the moments that won them the game. They got through three consecutive matches that went to extra time to get to the final. That tells you about the qualities they have.”