RECIFE, Brazil (AP) — Niko Kovac points to the resumes of his top attacking players as he outlines why he expects his Croatia team to be the first in this World Cup to score against Mexico.
If he's wrong, his team is going home. A scoreless draw, which would clinch a spot in the second round for Mexico, won't do for Croatia on Monday in the last Group A game. Only a victory over stingy "El Tri" will see Croatia through, yet Kovac sounds a lot like a coach who believes he has the upper hand.
Kovac said if anyone should be worried, it's the Mexican defenders and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
"We know that Mexico is excellent. ... They have a very good goalkeeper, but we have a team that has scored five times," he said.
In Kovac's opinion, Spain's La Liga is the world's best professional league — and that is where Croatian midfielders Luka Modric (Real Madrid) and Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla last season, Barcelona next) earn their livings.
The three players who combined for four goals in Croatia's most recent outing — Mario Mandzukic, Ivica Olic and Ivan Perisic — all play professionally in the German Bundesliga, Kovac rates as the second-best league in the world.
Kovac cites the quality and experience of such players, combined with the fact his team is the leading scorer in Group A with five goals, as reasons he likes his team's chances against Mexico.
"We are realistic, but we are also realistically optimistic," Kovac continued. "We have players from top-notch clubs. If I cannot be optimistic now, when can I be?"
And while the onus will be on the Croatians to attack, that's precisely how Modric would have it.
"It is a good thing we have to play to win," Modric said. "It's easier in a way. The fact they've not conceded (a goal) speaks volumes about their quality, but I'm sure we'll find a way to score.
"There's a first time for everything. They had a great deal of luck and an excellent performance from their goalkeeper against Brazil."
Indeed, Ochoa, who made a slew of acrobatic saves in the 0-0 draw with Brazil, was quick to call that performance the game of his life. The Brazilian players referred to some of Ochoa's diving stops as "miracles."
Croatia's confidence, meanwhile, is surging following a 4-0 triumph over Cameroon. Mandzukic, the star Bayern Munich striker who was back from a one-game suspension, scored twice, while Olic and Perisic, who both played for Wolfsburg last season, added a goal each.
Croatia lost its opener, 3-1 to Brazil, but Kovac was generally pleased with that performance.
"We created enough chances against Brazil — and it's not easy to create against Brazil — but we could not convert all of them," Kovac said.
The Croatians believe that match turned on what Kovac called a "shameful" decision by referee Yuishi Nichimura to award a penalty to Brazil when striker Fred fell to the turf after what appeared to be slight contact with defender Dejan Lovren. Neymar converted to make it 2-1, and Brazil added a late goal.
Croatia's lone goal in that match went in off the foot of Brazilian defender Marcelo, but Kovac said striker Nikica Jelavic deserved credit for his deflection across the goal mouth that was difficult for Marcelo to handle.
Now, Modric said, it's time for Croatia to fulfill its potential and advance out of the group stage, something it was unable to do with a similar squad two years ago in the European championships.
"At the last Euro we played very good matches; unfortunately we were not lucky enough to get out of a very difficult group in which two finalists (Spain and Italy) played against us," Modric said. "This World Cup provides additional motives for us to make an additional step. We have the quality for that and we deserve to make that breakthrough."