Chelsea stars ‘expected Kovacic and Ziyech to be first players back from World Cup’, claims Croatia star

MATEO KOVACIC is proud he and Hakim Ziyech proved their Chelsea team-mates wrong.

The Blues sent 15 players to the World Cup and Croatia’s Kovacic and Morocco attacker Ziyech are the surprise last-men standing.

ReutersChelsea team-mates Mateo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech[/caption]

Midfielder Kovacic, 28, said: “The African teams have played great football and I’m so glad, especially for Morocco to have come this far.

“I was in contact with Ziyech before the World Cup and my other club-mates. The others expected me and him to come back home first.

“But here we are, almost at the end. We’re happy to have done it.”

Morocco and Croatia made it through to the final weekend, while Chelsea players in other big teams fell by the wayside.

Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic said: “Morocco is definitely the most pleasant and biggest surprise.

“They are like us four years ago. No one expected them to go so far.

“They have deserved to be where they are, they matured and went to a higher level with every game.

“They have grown into a team full of energy and self-motivation.

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“Spain, Germany, England, the Netherlands, not to mention Italy — who did not even participate — those are all great teams.
“But they didn’t reach the semi-finals, so could have done more.

“This is a unique World Cup and the two teams in this play-off were not among the favourites.”

The match could the last World Cup appearances for a number of Croats — including 37-year-old captain Luka Modric.

But Dalic is confident that the midfielder will stay on for the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign. Dalic said: “Knowing how he feels about football and the national team, I’m quite sure he will — but it is his decision only.

“This might be the last World Cup for the golden generation.

“We have eight players with us from the last World Cup. That means we have 18 who were not, so we can already speak about a new Croatian team.

“We must maintain the excellence. We must not ruin what we have achieved, we must follow it up.”

Croatia arrived as a football team and as a nation at the 1998 World Cup, where they won the third-fourth place play-off.

I was in contact with Ziyech before the World Cup and my other club-mates. The others expected me and him to come back home first.

Mateo Kovacic

Dalic said: “It was the first medal for the national team.

“It also achieved recognition for Croatia because it had only just gained independence.”

Today’s game means a lot and Kovacic added: “We remember how important it was for Croatia and how proud we were at the time.

“We only hoped that one day we would be in the same situation — fighting for the medal.

“This would be the second time in four years to come back home with a medal.”

The only sour note was struck when Dalic was asked about Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim taking charge of this match.

He said: “Fifa has taken a huge risk. I hope that after the match we aren’t talking about the ref.”

Whatever happens, Kovacic and Ziyech will have plenty to talk about with their Chelsea team-mates when they return to England.

GettyMateo Kovacic ahead of Croatia’s match with Morocco[/caption]

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