England are favourites for their World Cup semi-final with Croatia, but much will depend on whether they can contain Luka Modric…
Luka Modric knows a thing or two about breaking English hearts. On that drizzly night in 2007 when Croatia ended England’s Euro 2008 qualification hopes with a 3-2 win at Wembley, the little midfielder was outstanding, upstaging Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and setting his career on the upward trajectory it has followed ever since.
England are a different beast now, of course. Gareth Southgate has thrown off the shackles of the past, imbuing his young, hungry side with belief and guiding them to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1990. But the challenge against Croatia remains the same. Age has not diminished Modric. In fact, he is more influential than ever.
Just a few weeks after winning his fourth Champions League with Real Madrid, Modric has been excellent in Russia. He was the driving force behind Croatia’s emergence from Group D, scoring one goal and setting up another against Nigeria and netting a stunning strike in the sensational win over Argentina, and he has continued to impress in the knockout rounds.
Croatia have been taken to penalties in both games so far, but Modric has led by example, even showing the mental fortitude to step up and score against Denmark after missing from the spot in the dying minutes of extra-time. Still an emerging talent when he faced England in 2007, Modric is now Croatia’s captain and leader.
The statistics underline his importance to the side. In addition to being Croatia’s top scorer so far, Modric has had more touches, made more passes and created more chances than any of his team-mates. Manager Zlatko Dalic has described his midfield partnership with Ivan Rakitic as the best at the tournament, but it’s Modric who dictates the play.
He remains as industrious as ever, too. The 32-year-old has played more minutes than any of his team-mates in Russia, with FIFA tracking data showing he is one of only a handful of players at the tournament to have covered more than 50 kilometres. According to Opta, he has won possession in the midfield third more times than anyone else.
It’s that blend of creativity and hard graft which makes him such a handful. Russia thought they had found a way to quieten him when they were able to outnumber Modric and Rakitic in the first half of Saturday’s quarter-final, but the second-half introduction of defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic changed that. Dalic will surely use him from the start against England.
Southgate, for his part, will be encouraged by how his own midfield has functioned so far, with Jordan Henderson screening effectively behind Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, but they are yet to come up against a playmaker of Modric’s ilk. When they faced Belgium, Kevin De Bruyne was rested. Against Colombia, James Rodriguez was sidelined by injury.
The dilemma for Southgate, then, is whether to stick with what has functioned so well up until now, or switch things around in order to provide greater defensive solidity.
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Eric Dier is the most obvious candidate to come into the side. The Tottenham man struggled to adapt to the pace of the game when he came off the bench in the last-16 meeting with Colombia, but he is trusted by Southgate, who said he is “always a big part” of his plans before England’s group game against Belgium.
Dier’s introduction would provide added security, but would it compromise England’s attack? Alli and Lingard have shown themselves to be key in Russia, after all. Alli scored his first goal of the tournament against Sweden, while Lingard’s work-rate and goal threat have been invaluable throughout the tournament. For Dier to come in, though, one would have to drop out.
It is a balancing act for Southgate, and represents his first genuine selection dilemma since the tournament began. On the one hand, he will be tempted to stick with a winning formula. On the other, he will consider that a player like Modric demands special treatment. Eleven years on, England can ill-afford a repeat of that drizzly evening at Wembley.
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