While many of his team-mates will use the latest international break to recharge their batteries and prepare for the return to Bundesliga action, Hoffenheim forward Andrej Kramaric has the small matter of a 2018 FIFA World Cup play-off to look forward to.
Kramaric and Croatia will have to get the better of Greece over two legs to secure their place at next summer’s finals in Russia, having been pipped to first place in European qualifying Group I by Iceland. After helping Hoffenheim return to winning ways against Cologne on Matchday 11, the 26-year-old is looking to play a key role in the Vatreni’s upcoming encounters with the UEFA EURO 2004 winners.
In an exclusive interview with bundesliga.com, Kramaric shares his thoughts on Croatia's World Cup qualifying campaign, Hoffenheim’s start to the season and the disappointment of missing out on a place in the UEFA Champions League group stage.
bundesliga.com: Andrej Kramaric, you told us in one of our more recent chats that “the bigger the game, the better I play”. It doesn’t get much bigger than a 2018 FIFA World Cup play-off between Croatia and Greece, does it?
Andrej Kramaric: When we last spoke, [Croatia] were in a comfortable position [in qualifying Group I] and were on the brink of a place at the World Cup, but now the situation’s changed. We didn’t perform as well as we can in our last four games.
bundesliga.com: You scored both goals in Croatia’s 2-0 victory over Ukraine - that was certainly a big game! What did your coach say to you beforehand?
Kramaric: I hadn’t started many games before our win against Ukraine, but he didn’t say anything in particular - just the usual instructions. I played on the right wing and it was my job to keep Ukraine’s attacking full-back quiet and swap positions with striker Mario Mandzukic from time to time.
Watch: Andrej Kramaric's top five goals for Hoffenheim
bundesliga.com: Was that the most important game of your career?
Kramaric: I was unaware at the time, but my friends and family soon told me all about the reaction at home in Croatia. That was brilliant. Many of my friends and several journalists told me it was one of my best ever games.
bundesliga.com: You know Greek defenders Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kyriakos Papadopoulos from the Bundesliga…
Kramaric: Yes, I’ve been following their progress this season. They epitomise all the qualities of the Greek national team. They’re both fighters. I hope we score as early as possible in the first leg in Croatia - that would make things a lot easier for us.
bundesliga.com: You’ve been playing on the right flank for the national team recently, but you’re a number ten by trade. Or would you say you’re a ‘nine-and-a-half’?
Kramaric: I often play in different positions here at Hoffenheim, so I’m used to playing different attacking roles. I’m happy to play wherever the coach wants me to. It’s never a problem for me.
bundesliga.com: What do you make of Hoffenheim’s start to the season?
Kramaric: We’re in an okay position, I’d say. We didn’t do too well in October and didn’t get the results we wanted, but [our dip in form] has not come as a huge surprise to me. We’re usually playing every three days, and I’ve been playing twice for Croatia during the international breaks. You do start to feel physically and mentally tired, but that’s normal. We’re playing well, but we didn’t pick up enough points in October. I’m confident that we can recapture our form, though. We have good players and a good team, as we showed against Cologne. I think we can have a successful season, but it’s become more difficult for us this season. Most teams are more cautious against us now. It’s also important to remember that we’re not Barcelona and that we can’t always outplay our opponents.
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bundesliga.com: Would you agree that Hoffenheim are under more pressure to do well this season?
Kramaric: Yes, that’s true. A lot of our players aren’t used to coping with this kind of pressure. We’re regarded as one of the top teams in the league now, so everyone wants to beat us. You mustn’t forget that we’ve had a lot of bad luck with injuries of late, too.
bundesliga.com: But you remain confident of success, nevertheless?
Kramaric: Of course - we have so much potential! If we can recharge our batteries [during the international break] we’ll win plenty of games, even though we’ve got a tough run between now and Christmas. Other teams have similar problems, though.
bundesliga.com: You have a knack of producing moments of magic out of nothing...
Kramaric: That’s for the fans or journalists to decide. I had a very good season last year, with lots of goals and assists. I’m sure I’ll hit form again soon. I’m getting in good goalscoring positions, after all.
bundesliga.com: Did your penalty miss in the UEFA Champions League play-off first leg against Liverpool affect your confidence at all?
Kramaric: No, I don’t think so. I can even laugh about it now! I don’t think about it too much - that would be pointless. But I admit I do regret not scoring that penalty, because things might have turned out differently if I had. You have to accept that Liverpool were the better team, though. It’s just a shame we were drawn against them.
bundesliga.com: How confident are you of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup with Croatia?
Kramaric: I’m very confident, not just about the national team but for Hoffenheim, too. Both have strong teams with strong players. Hoffenheim are a good Bundesliga team, while Croatia are one of the best sides in Europe. Everything depends on us players and how well we prepare, both physically and mentally. We need to be clever. That’s what professional football is all about. It’s a job. It’s not just about playing football.
Andrej Kramaric was speaking to Tobias Schächter