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Leipzig's Joško Gvardiol on Man City, World Cup success and where he likes to play

The highly rated Croatia centre-back has hope for his side's decider against Manchester City as he reflects on his World Cup experience and his upbringing.

Stellar performances for club and country have made Joško Gvardiol one of the most highly rated defenders in the game
Stellar performances for club and country have made Joško Gvardiol one of the most highly rated defenders in the game DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Leipzig centre-back Joško Gvardiol has become one of the most coveted defenders in football following his outstanding displays for Croatia at the FIFA World Cup.

After scoring Leipzig's equaliser in the 1-1 UEFA Champions League round of 16 first-leg draw against Manchester City last month, the 21-year-old believes "anything is possible" in the return game against Pep Guardiola's side. The defender also reflects on his childhood in Croatia, taking the first steps of his career at Dinamo Zagreb and finishing third at the tournament in Qatar.

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On playing in the Champions League with Leipzig

Last season we were eliminated at the group stage of the competition, and we played in the Europa League, and we were sad. This season, after a bad start, we managed to get through the group stage and qualify for the knockouts, where we're playing Manchester City. We managed to draw 1-1 at home and now we have a difficult second leg in Manchester, but that's football and we know that anything is possible.

Ambitions? Well, I don't really know. I'm here right now and we have a lot of work to do; there's the Bundesliga and we're also playing in the Champions League and competing in the [German Cup]. So, it's important for me to be as successful as possible this season, and then when the season is over, I can think about what and how to proceed.

Man City's Erling Haaland under pressure from Gvardiol
Man City's Erling Haaland under pressure from GvardiolAFP via Getty Images

On his upbringing

I grew up with two sisters in a small apartment and spent a lot of time playing on the football pitch with my friends. I was really into sport, whether it was football, basketball or handball. I just dedicated myself to that sport. It was something that got me through childhood and that I just couldn't do without.

So, I always say that if I wasn't a footballer, I'd probably have a go at basketball or handball. But here we are. I thank God for being where I am and I'm just grateful to myself and, of course, my parents who supported me while growing up. My dad is still a fisherman and it's difficult for people who have gained a work ethic to just abandon something they've been bound to throughout their career.

On his preferred position

I like to play as a sweeper. I like to have the ball at my feet. But I also like to be more involved in the game if the match and the opponent allow me to be. Of course, I like to look for other solutions, sending high balls forward and breaking through the opponent's lines, and I certainly like to send long diagonals in behind the opponent's defence.

Gvardiol wore a protective mask at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar
Gvardiol wore a protective mask at the FIFA World Cup in QatarVisionhaus/Getty Images

On winning World Cup bronze with Croatia

I truly realised what we had achieved after returning to my club and seeing how my team-mates reacted and how they treated me after winning that medal. Such a small country winning two medals, bronze and silver, in just four years: I still can't believe how I ended up in the first team and that I fought my way into the national first team at just 19-20 years of age.

However, I'm glad I'm here, that I share the changing room with great players and that, even today, I can still keep learning from them. When such competitions are held, we truly breathe as one and fight for each other. The atmosphere in the team was fantastic and even if we made a small mistake, we just let it slide and kept moving on.

On Dinamo Zagreb

I played in almost all the age categories for Dinamo Zagreb. I started playing for the senior team at the age of 17, and when I was 18 years old, I settled in the senior team under coach [Nenad] Bjelica. People at that club know what they're doing. I would like to return there at the end of my football career because that club gave me everything.

Gvardiol in action for Dinamo Zagreb in 2021
Gvardiol in action for Dinamo Zagreb in 2021DeFodi Images via Getty Images