Commentary

Luka Modric is eager to fulfill 'great expectations' placed on Croatia

A penalty kick that star midfielder Luka Modric failed to convert could have shattered Croatia’s World Cup campaign in the round of 16.

As the players lined up for a penalty-kick tiebreaker with Denmark, only a few minutes had elapsed since keeper Kasper Schmeichel  snuffed Modric’s weak effort to push Croatia in front. Instead, overtime ended, 1-1, and Modric admits that in the huddle his mind flashed back a decade to a European Championship quarterfinal against Turkey that ended with the same scoreline and would be decided by the same method.



In that 2008 shootout, Modric failed to convert his kick and teammate Ivan Rakitic misfired as well. Turkey advanced and Croatia went home. Here he was, a decade older, in a very similar situation.

“It was not easy because the Turkey game was still in our minds,” he says. “I think it was in everyone’s minds because it was so tough for us, that defeat.”

Tough times call for tough response. Rakitic supplied the catalyst. As players summoned up their courage and concentration, his voice and message rang loudest. The time had come for restitution.

“At that moment, we had to repay what he had given us on so many occasions,” Rakitic said. “It was simply an occasion when I spoke from my heart.”

Modric’s teammates rallied around him and their cause to eliminate Denmark. They did the same against the host nation in the quarterfinals on Saturday. Their game against England in Moscow on Wednesday is the penultimate hurdle for Croatia, which since its emergence as a nation from a war-torn Yugoslavia in the early 1990s has yearned to transform its reputation for producing excellent players into a World Cup crown.

“The victory says a lot about our spirit,” said Modric, whose family lived for a time in refugee camps to avoid militias and fierce battles. “I said before the game that since 2008 we had never passed the first knockout game and it was very important for us to take the monkey off our back. And we did it.”

For Croatia, its fatigue level figures to be greater. Its opponent downed Colombia in the round of 16 on penalties -- breaking a curse of three straight defeats in the World Cup and three straight defeats in the European Championship via the tiebreaker -- but rather routinely disposed of Sweden, 2-0, in its quarterfinal on Saturday.

“England have suffered less than us,” Modric said. “And we have fewer days to recover for the semifinal than we did for the quarterfinal. But it’s a semifinal. We will find the extra motivation, the extra everything.”

In both tiebreakers, Modric took the third Croatian attempts and Rakitic the fifth and final kicks to advance. Croatia thus broke a long run of disappointment in major competitions; since reaching the 1998 World Cup semifinals -- in its first appearance – the national team had not prevailed in any knockout game by any method. As its captain slayed the demons of his past so did Croatia.

“He deserves that we follow him and stick with him,” says Rakitic. “What it also shows is how together we are. The atmosphere in the camp is fantastic. It is the source of our great power.”

Much of its power generates from the twin engines of Modric and Rakitic, who are fierce club rivals with Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively, but when paired up drive one of the top midfields in this competition. Croatia boasts other big clubs on its roster – striker Mario Mandzukic plays for Juventus, midfielder Marcelo Brozovic and forward Ivan Perisic are club teammates at Inter Milan, centerback Dejan Lovren anchors the back line for Liverpool, right back Sime Vrsaljko just won a Europa League crown with Atletico Madrid  -– but its brightest star is Modric, who since joining Real in 2012 has helped it win four Champions’ League titles. He’s been named to the Champions League team of the season for the last three campaigns, and not because of gaudy stats: he scored two goals in 40 appearances during that span.

In Croatia’s five World Cup games, he’s collected two goals and one assist. Several times he’s breached a defense by slipping a perfect through ball or slalomed through on a mesmerizing dribble. According to FIFA stats, he’s completed 304 of 367 passes (82.8 percent), which is a solid number considering how often opponents collapse on him to deny time and space. He's the quintessential example of why size (5-foot-8, 150 pounds) can't measure up to guile and skill.

His brilliance on the ball is balanced by a positional sense and dogged determination that enables him break up attacks as well as spark them. At 32, and with 111 caps and 14 goals already to his name, this could well be his last major competition and his play in each game has crackled with passion and commitment.

Yet he and his teammates have played 240 tough minutes and endured harrowing pressure in the knockout games to advance this far. It has conceded a few goals from set plays, which England has exploited to score five of its 11 goals.

“We watched the [England] game today, we saw how good they are from dead-ball situations,” said Modric at a press conference. “We have to improve that element of our game.”

Modric has a personal connection to the England squad stemming from four seasons in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur. Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, and Harry Kane are all former Spurs teammates.

“Harry was young and just coming up,” Modric said at the press conference. “He was always a hard worker. I actually remember one story about him but I will keep it to myself.”

A tactical change against Russia by head coach Zlatko Dalic, who dropped Modric further back from his advanced position in the previous games, won’t be repeated. Russia controlled much of the midfield play before a change of personnel and Modric’s positioning restored Croatia’s fluidity and cohesion.

“We lacked a body in midfield,” admitted Dalic. Early in the second half he brought in Brozovic to screen the back line and allow Modric and Rakitic to shuttle back-and-forth in conjunction with winger Ante Rebic and Andrej Kramaric, whose knack for dropping into the spaces behind Mandzukic has helped Croatia score 10 goals in its five games.

Brozovic replaced Ivan Perisic, whose dangerous forays up the left flank are offset by poor defensive abilities. Dalic solved his tactical problems against Russia but will be limited for the semifinal because of fatigue and the injury absence of Vrsaljko, who hobbled off in extra time with a knee injury and was replaced by another ex-Tottenham (and Manchester City) player, Vedran Corluka.

Modric acknowledges the belief that two decades after the squad of Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonomir Boban, Slaven Bilic and Robert Jarni finished third in its first World Cup, another group can do as well or better.

“I think we have a very good generation of players,” he said. “We have players at big clubs, they don’t just play there, they’re the driving forces of those clubs. It is only right there are great expectations.”

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