Croatia are arguably the best team at Euro 2016 so far and striker Nikola Kalinic believes victory over reigning champions Spain in the group stage has sent their confidence through the roof ahead of their last 16 clash with Portugal.
"It was difficult after we fell behind but we showed that we are shoulder to shoulder with the world’s top teams," Kalinic said after equalizing in the 2-1 come-from-behind victory which sealed first place in Group D.
"We are now one of the big favourites of this tournament.”
Croatia meet Portugal in Lens Saturday knowing victory would set up a potential run to deep in the tournament - a quarter-final with Switzerland or Poland awaits the winner.
Performances so far back up Kalinic's assertion. While traditional big names have struggled to find their rhythm, Croatia have looked slick on the ball and dangerous going forward.
They defeated Turkey in their opening game and should have been out of sight against the Czech Republic before - distracted by crowd trouble started by their own fans - they slipped to a late 2-2 draw.
“Let’s not get carried away,” attacking midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. “We are overjoyed, but there is no room for complacency.”
Barcelona star Rakitic has been magnificent so far in the centre of the park for Croatia, even overshadowing Real Madrid rival Luka Modric, who missed the Spain game through injury.
That pair are the envy of virtually every other nation at the tournament but they are not alone in driving Croatia forward. Winger Ivan Perisic, with two goals so far, has also been excellent while the defence marshalled by Vedran Corluka has been stronger than is suggested by the concession of three goals in three games.
"They are one of the sharks, we were trying to avoid them," Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. "They placed first in a group with Spain, which tells you all you need to know about them."
While Croatia have purred into the knock-out phase, Portugal stuttered their way through with three draws in Group F to finish behind Hungary and surprise packages Iceland.
In their last group game with Hungary, the stood on the brink of elimination repeatedly as they trailed three times before rescuing a 3-3 draw - an investment which could have consequences.
"This was a final, the next match is a final. All the way to the final final are finals," Santos said.
"We had high expectations, were highly motivated, were very ambitious. After two matches when we were better, we found ourselves in a final. This is very emotional draining, we have to let the players recover.
"They're human in the end, it's not a bunch of robots ... clearly players can be anxious but if they hadn't been as tightly knit (a group) they wouldn't be pulling in the same direction."
The spot of hope for Portugal is, as ever, star player Cristiano Ronaldo who brightened a difficult tournament for him with his first goals against Hungary.
"This is what Cristiano is all about, because he's a winner and a scorer, he feeds on goals," Santos said. "This will have increased his confidence levels."
Ronaldo declined to take questions from the media at his man of the match press conference following the Hungary game and acknowledged a tough challenge awaits in Lens.
"Now we're facing a very good team. The odds are 50-50 and whoever plays the better match will make it through," he said in a statement to a UEFA official.
"Croatia are a tough team with very good players. It's not every team that beats Spain, they have so we respect them. (But) we know our worth and we will look them in the eyes when we face them."
Thursday, June 23, 2016 - 12:21
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Thursday, June 16, 2016 - 09:36