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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Croatia captain Luka Modric sets sights on 'special' World Cup semi-final with England

Real Madrid playmaker will come up against some former colleagues from his days at Tottenham

Luka Modric will lead Croatia against England in the World Cup semi-finals. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters
Luka Modric will lead Croatia against England in the World Cup semi-finals. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

Not content with tormenting Russia, Luka Modric decided to tease the English-speaking media, too.

The Croatia captain had stopped in the mixed zone following Saturday’s nerve-jangling quarter-final victory against the hosts, when he and his teammates stood firm in the shootout in Sochi to prevail on penalties.

Clutching yet another man of the match award, Modric was a good guy to ask about Croatia’s next opponents. They play England in Moscow on Wednesday, a team the masterful midfielder knows well having spent four years at Tottenham Hotspur between 2008 and 2012, which in turn facilitated a big-money move to Real Madrid.

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Read more:

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Richard Jolly: England look to pragmatic Henderson to defeat Croatia

Zlatko Dalic: Croatia will be ready for semi-final showdown with England

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Many of Gareth Southgate’s men are Tottenham men. Five, in fact. Kyle Walker was formerly at the London club as well, until last summer. Modric played alongside the right-back and Danny Rose, but Harry Kane, his counterpart captain and this World Cup’s top scorer, had yet to emerge as Tottenham’s talisman.

Despite that, it was put to Modric if he had any Kane anecdotes from his time at White Hart Lane. Kane was 19 when Modric left. Then Modric left the assembled press wanting more.

“He was too young,” the Croat said. “But he was always a hard worker. I remember one story … but I will keep it for myself.”

And with that, he was off, laughing away, probably satisfied in coaxing pleas from the media to divulge and discuss. Always leave them wanting more, eh?

Predictably, Modric wants more from this World Cup. In beating Russia, Croatia equalled their best run at the tournament, matching the much-vaunted 1998 side, who swatted aside Germany in the last eight and eventually nabbed bronze.

Now England stand between the current crop and the opportunity to go even further. For Modric, given said Tottenham connection, it promises to be an additionally significant occasion, regardless of the extra-time and penalties – their second in the space of six days – and the apparent injuries to goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and right-back Sime Vrsaljko.

Meanwhile, and earlier on Saturday, England had enjoyed a relatively no-frills victory against Sweden.

“Always playing England is special,” Modric said. “They are a great team. They are having a great tournament so far, like us. They are suffering less, especially today. But they showed again the great quality they have. We are expecting a tough match. But we’ll be ready.”

Nevertheless, England should be fresher on Wednesday, both in body and mind. Surely that represents an advantage in a tussle that promises to be decided by the finest margins.

“Yeah, we have less days to recover for this match,” Modric said. “But I’m sure we will recover well. It’s the semi-final: we will find extra motivation, extra strength, extra everything that is necessary for these kind of games.”

That includes defending set-pieces better. Against Russia, and with the game seemingly wrapped up, Croatia conceded from a corner, when Mario Fernandes rose highest in the area and powered home a header. There were only five minutes of extra-time remaining. Croatia were 2-1 up, one foot in the semis.

What is more, Modric recognises that as one of England’s real strengths, maybe their greatest in that in Russia only three of their 11 goals have come from open play. The first against Sweden arrived once Harry Maguire met Ashley Young’s dead-ball delivery and smacked a header past Robin Olsen.

“They are very strong in set-pieces, as we could see today and previous matches as well: they are scoring a lot from them,” Modric said. “We’re going to have to pay attention to those details, because today we conceded one, which we shouldn’t allow. But it’s football and thanks God in the end we are in the semi-final.

“We have to kill games before, because we could. We were a much better team than Russia, especially in the second half and extra-time. But we cannot go without drama it seems.”

In contrast, and what felt like a break from the norm, England were positively drama-free. They did what they had to do to overcome a previously stubborn Sweden, six days after casting aside Colombia and the ghosts of generations past, on penalties. Whisper it, but it feels as if Southgate’s men have a different mentality, an altogether more robust one.

“It seems they are more like a team,” Modric said. “They have this togetherness that is very important to have success and they do have it at the moment. We’ll see. There are two very good teams playing well and it’s going to be a good and interesting match.”

Interesting all the same, but England expects. With football supposedly coming home, Modric was asked if the hysteria back there meant the English go into a first semi-final in 28 years with pressure perhaps weighing more heavily.

“I don’t know,” he said, diplomatically. “With England it’s always pressure. Same like for us. Both teams have a lot of pressure to arrive into the final. We’ll see. Maybe it’s a bit more pressure on them, but we also have a lot of pressure.

“And we want to take that pressure. We know what Croatia is expecting from us and, more importantly, that we are expecting from us.”