18.06.2024 03:40 h

Croatia hoping to avoid ignominious end for 'golden generation'

Croatia will be aiming to get their Euro 2024 campaign back on track against Albania on Wednesday, with their 'golden generation' in danger of a disappointing farewell from the top level following a humbling loss to Spain.

Although World Cup semi-finalists in 1998, Croatia have enjoyed an unprecedented spell of success since reaching the 2018 World Cup final in Russia, where they lost to France.

Zlatko Dalic's men are bidding to reach the knockout phase for a fifth consecutive major tournament in Germany, but there are fears this could be the end of an era.

Captain and star player Luka Modric is 38, winger Ivan Perisic is 35 and midfielders Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic, as well as forward Andrej Kramaric, are all in their 30s.

Former lynchpins of the national team, including Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Dejan Lovren, have already retired from international football.

The average age of the 15 players who featured in a demoralising 3-0 loss to Spain in Croatia's opener was 28.5 years old.

But coach Dalic insists that defeat was far from a fatal blow -- after Albania in Hamburg, they face holders Italy in their last Group B clash in Leipzig on June 24.

Croatia finished third at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and lost to Spain in the Nations League final only last year.

"There is no room for pessimism, everything is still in our hands," Dalic said. "Of course, we have to be better. It's my job to turn the team around."

Rumours of a rift in the camp after Perisic allowed Bruno Petkovic to take a late penalty, which was saved by Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon, have been played down despite Dalic publicly criticising his striker.

"I think that situation is over. The coach said everything on that topic," winger Lovro Majer said on Monday.

"Bruno took the penalty, unfortunately he didn't score, it can happen to anyone. It's a finished story and there's no need to add anything special."

Dalic is expected to opt for a switch in formation, potentially breaking up the midfield trio of Modric, Kovacic and Brozovic.

Former Inter Milan player Brozovic has increasingly looked off the pace for Croatia since his move to Saudi club Al-Nassr last year.

Croatia did create chances against Spain and were starting to look the more dangerous of the two teams when one through ball from Fabian Ruiz split them open and sent Alvaro Morata in on goal to score the first goal.

"I don't think it looked as bad as the result suggested," said Majer.

"It's football, sometimes you concede and you don't score, but it didn't look so terrible."

Croatia have experience of recovering from similar positions at major tournaments -- they progressed from the group stage at Euro 2020 despite an opening 1-0 loss to England and started their excellent Qatar World Cup campaign with a goalless draw against Morocco.

Dalic apologised to the fans, who vastly outnumbered their Spanish counterparts in Berlin, after Saturday's defeat and his players vowed to battle on.

"We can only promise that we will do our best and fight to the end and that we will celebrate in the next two games and get through the group," said Wolfsburg's Majer.