Andrej Kramaric “can talk for days” about his memories of playing for Leicester but hopes to be able to “speak for years” about what he achieves with Croatia, starting with Wednesday’s semi-final against England.
The 27-year-old was Leicester’s record signing at £9million when they bought him in January 2015 and he scored three goals in 15 games during the rest of that season.
But the pacey forward could not break into Leicester’s title-winning side the following season and he was loaned to Hoffenheim 12 months after joining the East Midlands club.
“My stay in England is a great story for me, it was my first time outside Croatia and everything was new,” Kramaric told reporters in Moscow.
“I didn’t play much because the team was playing well and no coach would want to change a winning team. It was a great experience – I could talk about it for days – but I hope to be able to speak about this experience with Croatia for years.”
As he only played twice for Leicester that season – two defeats, as it happened – Kramaric did not earn a Premier League winner’s medal and he joined Hoffenheim permanently at the end of the Foxes’ fairytale campaign.
There are clearly no hard feelings, though, as he described his former strike partner Jamie Vardy, a rival on Wednesday, as a “great guy”.
Kramaric has also rediscovered the form that tempted Leicester in the first place, netting 36 times in 93 games for Hoffenheim and scoring Croatia’s first in their quarter-final win over Russia.
Asked what he thought of England’s run to the last four in Russia, Kramaric said: “England was one of the favourites for me before the tournament because they have a young and hungry team without any big movie stars, so it won’t be easy.”
Croatia moved to Moscow from their previous base in Saint Petersburg after that dramatic victory over the hosts – their second straight win on penalties – and sitting alongside Kramaric was Juventus star Mario Mandzukic, who scored the first of his 31 international goals in a defeat by Fabio Capello’s England in 2008.
Having played more than 500 games for top sides in Croatia, Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as 87 caps for his country, Mandzukic is one of several highly-experienced players the Three Lions must get past if they are to reach a second World Cup final.
On whether Croatia’s extra guile could make the difference, Mandzukic said: “I agree Croatia has more experienced players but we’ve also got some great young players and that’s what has made us so good in this tournament.
“I would say the chances are 50/50 and that applies to everyone in the last four. We do not fear anyone but we respect everyone and believe in ourselves.”
Crucial to that belief is the knowledge they have one of this World Cup’s best players, Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric.
Mandzukic and Modric first emerged as big talents when they were at Dinamo Zagreb and the striker says the former Spurs star is a potential winner of the Golden Ball, the prize FIFA gives to the tournament’s top player.
“Luka deserves all the accolades he is getting because he is one of the best players in the world,” he said.
“He’s our captain, our leader and if gets the Golden Ball he will have deserved it.”
Mandzukic has enjoyed several wins over English opposition in European club football but admitted Wednesday’s encounter at the Luzhniki Stadium will be a unique affair.
“We have seen that England play a bit different than before, it’s a very attractive and attack-minded style,” he said.
“But I think both teams will start the game a bit more carefully because it’s a semi-final and maybe a mistake can decide it – perhaps Croatia could have some luck.”
If they do it would mean this Croatia side has gone one better than the famous 1998 team that finished third in the former Yugoslav republic’s World Cup debut as an independent nation.
Dismissing the idea that Croatia might be tired after playing two 120-minute games in a week, Mandzukic said “nobody was complaining” and added: “You’ll see at the match that we’re ready to go and we will leave our last drop of sweat on the pitch to achieve our goal.”
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