International football is full of great partnerships. Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Jon Champion and Ally McCoist. What characterises these duos is a near-telepathic understanding on the field or in the commentary box.
If Croatia can beat England on Wednesday night and make it to their first ever World Cup final, then Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic will surely join that list.
The pair are Croatia’s standout players in a midfield with no shortage of talent and there is a nice symmetry in the fact that one plays for Real Madrid, the other for Barcelona.
The parallels don’t stop there either. Both are unassuming players who show that not all footballers are narcissistic superstars. Both are also arguably under-appreciated at their club sides, sides at which they are surrounded by a host of attacking talent. Now they stand on the brink of history with their national side.
Big fish in a big pond
When Luka Modric signed for Madrid for £33 million in 2012, huge expectations were placed on his shoulders. Jose Mourinho’s team had just won La Liga and were looking to consolidate their place at the top in Spain while challenging for the elusive Decima in Europe.
After a slow start to his career at the Santiago Bernabeu, the Croat was named the worst La Liga signing of the year with 32.2% of the votes in a Marca poll. Madridistas bemoaned the fact Mourinho had chosen Modric over Santi Cazorla given the latter’s Spanish top-flight experience.
Six years on and several trophies later, Modric is integral to Madrid. The Spanish giants would not have won the Champions League four times in the past five years without the Croatia captain pulling the strings in midfield. Though he may not get the same praise as the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, he has won over the Bernabeu faithful with his work-rate and skill.
Rakitic joined Barcelona in a similarly pressurised situation in 2014. With an ageing Xavi on his way out of the Camp Nou, the former Sevilla midfielder was to provide the energy which the Barcelona legend couldn’t anymore. Like Modric, he started slowly, culminating in Luis Enrique dropping him in the first half of his debut season.
But Enrique soon realised how Barcelona suffered without Rakitic’s presence in midfield. He was reinstated and became a first-team regular, culminating in his opening goal against Juventus in the Champions League final. That set the Blaugrana on their way to their fifth European trophy and since then he has been a mainstay in the side.
The problem was that Modric and Rakitic had gone from two relatively modest clubs in Spurs and Sevilla to the two biggest clubs in world football. They had gone from being their team’s star player to one of many at Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Regardless of how important they are, the pair will never grab the headlines like Messi or Ronaldo, Suarez or Bale. It is a different story when they play for Croatia.
Setting the tempo for Croatia
During the course of the Russia 2018, Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic has called Modric and Rakitic the two best midfielders at this World Cup and it is hard to argue with him.
They are Croatia’s top two players when it comes to completed passes (Modric has made 342 compared to Rakitic’s 279) and key passes (14 from Modric, seven from Rakitic). Meanwhile, Real’s number ten has made the joint most dribbles in the side (13) with his Barcelona rival second (10).
It was Modric and Rakitic who set the tempo and ensured Croatia put Argentina to the sword in their 3-0 group stage drubbing of Jorge Sampaoli's side. They scored a goal apiece and Modric made the most passes of any Croatia player in Argentina’s half (29).
The two goals summed up their distinct playing styles. Modric was all energy for his goal, feinting twice before unleashing one of his lethal shots from distance with his right boot. Rakitic glided across the pitch for his, standing and waiting in the right place to slot home when Caballero saved his initial effort.
Rakitic’s contribution has perhaps been overlooked, however. He became the first player to score the decisive penalty in two shootouts at a World Cup when he netted the final effort against Russia having done the same against Denmark and both times he was nerveless as he sidled up to the spot.
The Barcelona man is happy to take on a supporting role for his Real counterpart and his selfless work in midfield allows Modric to push forward. He has made more tackles than any other Croatia player (10) and it is this dedication to the wider team which has endeared him to the Camp Nou faithful.
Modric might get more plaudits because he’s wearing the captain’s armband but there is a strong argument to be made that Rakitic has been more impressive in Russia.
Is Dalic using them right?
Croatia are at their most effective when the two are working in tandem but that may be in spite of Dalic's tactics rather than because of them.
Though his side were lethal against Argentina, they were aided by some shambolic defending. They have stuttered since that group stage match, requiring extra time and penalties to beat both Denmark and Russia.
Dalic prefers to build from the wings rather than through the middle and that has restricted Modric and Rakitic's influence. The Croatia manager does not seem to know how to use them to their full effect, despite recognising they are two of the best midfielders in world football.
Modric and Rakitic started at the base of midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation in the quarterfinal and this severely limited their impact. It was no surprise that they played better when Dalic brought on Marcelo Brozovic and switched to a 4-3-3, freeing up Modric and Rakitic from their defensive duties.
If Croatia are to have any chance of beating England, Dalic would do well to hand over the controls to Modric and Rakitic. If the pair are on form as they were versus Argentina, then they could be unstoppable.
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