‘Little Pep’ Gvardiol coming up big for Croatia at World Cup

Dec 1, 2022, 3:15 PM | Updated: Dec 2, 2022, 5:21 am
Belgium's Leandro Trossard, left, and Croatia's Josko Gvardiol fight for the ball during the World ...

Belgium's Leandro Trossard, left, and Croatia's Josko Gvardiol fight for the ball during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

(AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

              Croatia's Luka Modric, right, clears the ball against Belgium's Romelu Lukaku during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
            
              Croatia's Borna Sosa, left, and Belgium's Thomas Meunier, right, fight for the ball during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan , Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
            
              Croatia's Luka Modric gestures towards the supporters at the end of the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
            
              Croatia's Luka Modric, front, duels for the ball with Belgium's Jan Vertonghen during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
            
              Croatia's Josko Gvardiol and Belgium's Leandro Trossard fight for the ball during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
            
              Croatia's Luka Modric, right, and Croatia's Josko Gvardiol celebrate at the end of the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
            
              Croatia's Josko Gvardiol kicks the ball in front of Belgium's Romelu Lukaku during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
            
              Belgium's Leandro Trossard, left, and Croatia's Josko Gvardiol fight for the ball during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
            
              Croatia's Ivan Perisic (4) goes up for the ball against Belgium's Romelu Lukaku, left, Axel Witsel, bottom left, and Toby Alderweireld, right, during the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. Croatia's Marko Livaja, back, looks on. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — For 90 minutes, the hulking, masked mass that is Josko Gvardiol kept Belgium’s big-name strikers at bay with timely tackles — none bigger than his stop on Romelu Lukaku two minutes into stoppage time.

Then the 20-year-old Croat who is fast becoming the most sought-after center back in Europe went over to the side of the field and reached up to embrace his mother and cry.

The fact that Croatia conceded only one goal in its three group games at the World Cup is largely down to the performance of Gvardiol, who, despite his hefty stature, is nicknamed “Little Pep” because of the similarities of his last name with that of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

“He’s the best defender in the world,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said through a translator after Thursday’s game. “Even if he’s not currently No. 1, he will become No. 1.”

While he only recently extended his contract with Leipzig through 2027, Gvardiol is reportedly a big transfer target for Chelsea, which should have no problem paying a 50 million euro ($50 million) release clause inserted into his deal with the German club.

In the meantime, veteran Croatia defenders Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, who are both 33, have taken Gvardiol under their wing. His addition to a team that in 2018 reached the World Cup final has added another dimension in terms of physicality and youth.

“He enjoys great support from Lovren both on and off the field, and Vida also helps with extra advice,” Dalic said. “I am happy to watch how good they work together.”

Gvardiol is wearing a face mask during the tournament because he broke his nose when he collided with Willi Orbán during a Bundesliga match on Nov. 10 — the day after he was named to Croatia’s World Cup squad.

Up next for Gvardiol and Croatia is a match in the round of 16 on Monday against a Japan squad that is coming off an inspiring victory over Spain and managed to advance ahead of four-time champion Germany, which was eliminated in one of the most competitive groups.

“Before the end of the group stage, if we could choose the opponent in the next round, maybe some would say Japan,” Dalic said Friday. “But after seeing that they beat both Germany and Spain, they are anything but an easy opponent.”

The core of Croatia’s team remains its experienced midfield trio of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic — plus winger Ivan Perisic.

At the age of 37 with 158 international appearances, Modric is still able to dominate soccer’s biggest games with both Real Madrid and Croatia.

Perisic, who is also 33, never seems to tire on the left wing. He ran 72.5 kilometers during Croatia’s seven matches in the 2018 World Cup and could break that mark in Qatar.

While coach Roberto Martinez announced he was leaving Belgium’s squad after its “Golden Generation” was eliminated following a 0-0 draw with Croatia, Dalic said he isn’t through with his national team — no matter how Croatia finishes this tournament.

“This team is a mix of youth and experience,” he said. “I have more plans for Euro 2024 and only then might I reflect on taking some other steps and moves in my career.”

___

Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

___

AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

United States' Mikaela Shiffrin speeds down the course during an alpine ski, women's World Cup slal...
Associated Press

US skier Shiffrin leads slalom in pursuit of record 86th win

SPINDLERUV MLYN, Czech Republic (AP) — American skier Mikaela Shiffrin had what she called a “perfect run” to lead a women’s World Cup slalom after the opening leg Sunday as she approached the all-time record for the most career wins with 86. If Shiffrin wins the race, she matches Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark’s best mark […]
1 day ago
Novak Djokovic of Serbia, left, shakes hands with Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece after Djokovic won t...
Associated Press

Djokovic beats Tsitsipas for 10th Australian Open, 22nd Slam

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic was simply too good at the most crucial moments and claimed his 10th Australian Open championship and 22nd Grand Slam title overall by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) in the final at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night. The victory allows Djokovic to return to No. […]
1 day ago
Arizona Coyotes defenseman Troy Stecher, left, taunts Anaheim Ducks center Trevor Zegras after Zebr...
Associated Press

Zegras scores in OT, Ducks beat Coyotes for 3rd win a row

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Trevor Zegras scored at 3:34 of overtime and the Anaheim Ducks beat the Arizona Coyotes 2-1 on Saturday night for their first three-game winning streak of the season. John Klingberg stole the puck from Matias Maccelli in the offensive zone and found Zegras in the slot for a wrist shot for […]
1 day ago
Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) and Cody Ceci (5) celebrate a goal against the Chicago Blackha...
Associated Press

Oilers head into All-Star break with win over Blackhawks

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Tyson Barrie scored twice, Connor McDavid had his NHL-best 41st goal and the Edmonton Oilers headed into their All-Star break with a 7-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night. McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman each had a goal and two assists, and Evander Kane and Ryan McLeod also […]
1 day ago
Seattle Kraken center Ryan Donato, rear, watches as the puck rests behind Columbus Blue Jackets goa...
Associated Press

Wennberg scores against former team, Kraken top Blue Jackets

SEATTLE (AP) — Alex Wennberg scored midway through the second period against his former team to help the Seattle Kraken beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-1 on Saturday night. Wennberg, who was drafted by the Blue Jackets in the first round in 2013, had his 10th goal of the season in his 600th career game. […]
1 day ago
Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam drives to the basket past Portland Trail Blazers forward Jera...
Associated Press

Achiuwa leads Raptors to 123-105 win over Trail Blazers

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Precious Achiuwa scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in place of the injured OG Anunoby to lead the Toronto Raptors to a 123-105 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night. Pascal Siakam scored 24 points and Gary Trent Jr. added 19 against his former team for the Raptors, […]
1 day ago
‘Little Pep’ Gvardiol coming up big for Croatia at World Cup