Their UEFA European Under-19 Championship semi-final ended in a painful defeat by France but for Croatia and their impressive goalkeeper Matej Delač there is still plenty to celebrate.
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Despite the disappointment of a semi-final exit at the hands of France, goalkeeper Matej Delač believes Croatia have surpassed expectations at the UEFA European Under-19 Championship.
Ivica Grnja's side said from the outset their main objective was to finish in the top three places in Group B to qualify for the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Instead, Saturday's 5-0 win against Portugal took them into the semi-finals and a tie against the host nation. Initially it looked as if another shock was on the cards when Arijan Ademi struck in the fourth minute, only for goals at the end of each half from Gaël Kakuta and Cédric Bakambu to end their challenge. "France are a good team; I'm disappointed but we gave it our best shot," a reflective Delač told UEFA.com.
The NK Inter Zaprešic custodian has impressed during his four appearances in Normandy, keeping clean sheets against Italy and Portugal, although he recognises the credit for those shut-outs should be shared. "I am satisfied with my performance even if you can always do better; it's not only down to me but it's thanks to the whole team," he said, before acknowledging the magnitude of the Croatian achievement in reaching the last four. "If you'd told me that before the tournament, I'd have thought you were crazy. We thought we could qualify for the World Cup but to reach the semi-finals is something else."
Having played against Spain in their group and France in the last four – losing both games 2-1 after scoring first – Croatia are uniquely placed to assess the respective merits of the two finalists. "France are the hosts and that's made things a bit easier for them, but I think Spain are a better team because they play like Barcelona and I like that style," added Delač, who was keen to emphasis how enjoyable his finals experience has been. "I have some good memories, the best ones being the first game with Spain and obviously the win against Portugal."
Still just 17, Delač has nevertheless made 38 league appearances for Inter Zaprešic over the past two seasons, saving a penalty on his debut, and was called up to the senior Croatia squad in August 2009 – making him the youngest player ever to achieve the feat. He will join Chelsea FC in August and has a clear idea of the direction he wants his career to take, explaining: "Petr Čech and Pepe Reina are my two idols. I was born in 1992 so next year there is the U-20 World Cup then maybe the Under-21 national side. We will see."