Dalic welcomes Spain contest

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic is keen to see how his team get on in their first competitive fixture since they reached the World Cup 2018 final.

Dalic guided his side all the way to their first major final in Russia, with the Vatreni eventually being beaten 4-2 by France in the showpiece finale.

Now, having drawn 1-1 with Portugal in a friendly international in Faro on Thursday evening, they are preparing to begin their UEFA Nations League campaign against Spain in Elche on Tuesday.

And Dalic is expecting a major test for his players, with La Furia Roja having won 2-1 against England at Wembley on Saturday evening.

He told UEFA.com: "This is not a must-win match for us, but a good result would keep our mood positive and it's much nicer when you win.

"That's why we want to win every match, but we are playing against a Spain team which didn't meet their expectations at the World Cup and are highly motivated now.

"It will be a tough match, so I think a draw would be good for us. Croatia are the World Cup runners-up and all teams will be motivated against us and we have to be aware of that."

Croatia last played Spain in the summer of 2016, when a group game at the European Championship finals ended 2-1 to the Red and Whites in Bordeaux, with Ivan Perisic netting the winner three minutes from time.

A 2-1 win for the visitors on Tuesday evening is priced at 16/1, while a 1-1 draw is available at 6/1.

Inter Milan winger Perisic, who has scored in each of his last three international games, is 10/3 to find the net at any time against Spain.

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Rakitic rules out Barca departure

Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic has pledged his future to Barcelona, saying that it was an easy decision to reject offers to head out of the Camp Nou.

The 30-year-old spoke to the Spanish media after helping Barca kick off their La Liga season with a tense 1-0 victory at Real Valladolid, with Rakitic having been the subject of much speculation before the game.

However, the schemer, who helped his country reach the final of World Cup 2018 earlier this summer, was happy to reject any offers on the table and stay put with the Catalan giants.

He told reporters: "There were several clubs that asked about signing me.

"I spoke about everything with my wife and my agent. We reflected on things and, in the end, the decision was an easy one. The most important thing for me is that I want to be here.

"I'm staying at Barcelona. I've had four spectacular years here and it's a privilege to defend this badge. I hope I can keep doing so for many years.

"There wasn't one (particular) thing that convinced me to stay. This is the best club in the world, there's no place in the world where I would be better off."

Rakitic joined Barca in the summer of 2014 from domestic rivals Sevilla, having previously played for FC Basel and Schalke.

He has made well over 200 appearances for the Blaugrana, helping them to three Spanish league titles, four Copa del Rey successes and Champions League glory in 2015.

Barca are priced at 6/1 to win the Champions League again this season, with Real Madrid 8/1 and Juventus available at 6/1.

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Lovren admits to injury worries

Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren admits he is unsure just how soon he will be fit and ready for the Reds, having suffered a stomach during World Cup 2018.

The 29-year-old helped Croatia reach the World Cup 2018 final earlier this summer, but has now confirmed that he was being troubled by a stomach muscle problem during the latter stages of the tournament in Russia.

And Lovren is now set to see a specialist in the Netherlands to confirm the severity of the problem.

He told Sportske Novosti: "I cannot train at all because of stomach muscle issues. I am suffering a lot of pain and will see a specialist.

"When did I start to feel it? I felt it during the World Cup. I played with pain and those three games killed me, but who wouldn't play for Croatia at such a big tournament.

"After the World Cup finished the pain increased. I can't even sit in my car without feeling it and to get out of the car hurts like hell.

"I'd always grit my teeth and play for Croatia, but now I am paying the price. However, no price is too high for what we achieved in Russia.

"I haven't trained since I returned from holiday. I'll reassess things after seeing the doctor in Netherlands. I have to deal with that for now and believe it will be okay."

Meanwhile, Liverpool are 7/2 to win the Premier League this season, with Manchester United 10/1 and Chelsea 14/1.

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Kovacic welcomes new challenge

Croatia international Mateo Kovacic is looking forward to the new campaign after moving from Real Madrid to Chelsea on a season-long loan deal.

The 24-year-old arrives at Stamford Bridge at the same time as Thibaut Courtois moves in the opposite direction.

Kovacic played five games for his country at World Cup 2018 and is keen to revive his career after growing frustrated at his lack of first-team starts at Real Madrid, 7/1 to win the Champions League again this term.

He said: "I am really happy and excited to be here at Chelsea. It is an amazing feeling.

"I will try to do my best for this club. It is a new league for me. The beginning is always tough but I am sure the coach and my new team-mates will help me and I am looking forward to a great season."

Central midfielder Kovacic came through Dinamo Zagreb's academy system and scored in the Champions League game against Lyon when he was only 17.

He moved to Inter Milan in January 2013 before joining Real two years later.

He has featured in more than 100 games during his three years in the Spanish capital although many of those have been from the substitutes bench.

Kovacic has represented Croatia 46 times since making his debut in 2013.

Chelsea can be backed at 12/1 to win the Premier League title this season while they are 8/1 beat Huddersfield Town 2-1 in their first game of the campaign on Saturday.

Dalic urges Croatia to stay smart

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic expects visitors Greece to arrive in Zagreb with a defensive mind-set for the first leg of their World Cup qualifying play-off tie.

2004 European champions Greece made the play-offs by finishing second in Group H behind Belgium, conceding six goals in ten games.

And Dalic, who took charge of Croatia partway through their qualifying campaign, is expecting a tough encounter in the Maksimir Stadium on Thursday evening.

He told reporters: "In Zagreb they will try to defend and keep a clean sheet, with long balls, counter-attacks and set-pieces in attack.

"We have to be careful, their style of play is dangerous and we have to stay calm, concentrated, patient and smart."

Dalic will have to plan without Fiorentina midfielder Milan Badelj, who will miss both legs of the tie due to an injury to his left thigh which he sustained in the Serie A clash with Roma last weekend.

Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic is also a doubt due to a hamstring problem, while Greece are sweating on the fitness of defensive duo Vasilis Torosidis and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.

They will definitely be without Roma central defender Kostas Manolas for the first leg in Zagreb as he serves a one-match suspension.

All three previous meetings of these two sides in Croatia have ended in draws, with the most recent a goalless affair in qualifying for Euro 2012.

Another draw on Thursday evening is available at 16/5, with a 0-0 draw priced at 6/1, while Croatia are 3/10 to qualify for the World Cup finals in Russia next summer.

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Hallgrimsson hails Iceland success

Iceland head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson was a happy man after seeing his side continue their rise by qualifying for the World Cup finals next summer.

A 2-0 victory at home to Kosovo was enough to secure top spot in qualifying Group I, as the Euro 2016 quarter-finalists saw off the challenges of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey to seal automatic qualification for Russia.

And Hallgrimsson hailed the efforts of his players, who he was worried would find it difficult to build on their success just over a year ago.

He told reporters: "The first beer after a party is not the best. The hardest thing was to get going again after our massive party in France.

"And what's more we are in a group contested between Croatia, Turkey, Ukraine and Finland, who are much better than their position in the group would have you believe.

"The success is not an end in itself, but a long journey towards a final destination."

Hallgrimsson also admitted that qualifying was made all the sweeter for having finished ahead of Croatia, who defeated Iceland in a World Cup qualifying play-off in 2014.

He added: "After we lost against Croatia we aimed at qualifying next time.

"In my opinion we were in the most difficult group, but we decided that we were just going to finish this. We had no interest in some sort of play-off bother."

Iceland are now available at 150/1 to win the World Cup next summer, while they are priced at 150/1 to triumph at Euro 2020.

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