Euro 2020 qualifiers: Croatia need Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric to rediscover their mojo
Too many of the team's totems that carried them to the 2018 World Cup final are underperforming or not playing
After the roar of approval, the hint of relief. Few better goals than Luka Modric’s, a rising thunderbolt from 25 yards at the Bernabeu, were struck anywhere last weekend. For Madridistas the identity of the scorer was appreciated as much as the impact on the scoreline. “Now that’s Ballon d’Or class,” purred one commentator.
It seemed overdue. “Modric should shoot more from that range,” suggested Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane. With more game time, perhaps he will. For most of this season, Modric has been the most understated of Ballon d’Or holders. He was sent off in the opening league match - a brutal decision - and with suspension and injury issues, has not featured in the starting XI in La Liga since. He made a conspicuous error to give away a goal in the humbling 2-2 draw against Bruges in the Champions League. It had been a while since the Bernabeu celebrated moment of ‘Ballon d’Or class’ from the Croatian voted as the best male player on earth for 2018.
Over in Barcelona, Modric’s compatriot, Ivan Rakitic, also celebrated a four-goal fiesta last weekend, though as a minor participant in Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Sevilla, a 70th-minute substitute. Rakitic has, like Modric, started just one league match this season for the Spanish champions, and as he arrived for national team duty this week, he acknowledged: “I don’t know what’s ahead.”
Modric and Rakitic: Probably the two most emblematic footballers of Croatia’s fairy-tale march to a World Cup final 15 months ago, and not only because they had been for so long commanders in the midfields of two of the game's most decorated clubs. In Russia last summer, they were the authority and the panache in Zlatko Dalic’s team: Modric the tireless captain, Rakitic the reliable matchwinner at moments of greatest pressure, scorer of the deciding penalty in two knockout-round shoot-outs.
A different form of pressure confronts them over the next four days, as the World Cup silver-medallists negotiate their way through a delicate position in Euro 2020 qualifying. Croatia lead Group E with 10 points but they have a thin cushion beneath. Hungary, who beat Croatia in March and play the return fixture in Split on Thursday, are joined with Slovakia on nine points. Wales, who host Croatia on Sunday, are on six with a match in hand on the rest.
And Croatia have perhaps the least favourable run-in. They have played the fifth-placed also-rans Azerbaijan twice already. They dropped points there in their last outing, a 1-1 draw.
Dalic calculates “15 points should be enough” to finish in the top two qualifying slots, but acknowledges that as he surveys his squad, he sees many of his allies short of optimum match-fitness.
Modric’s relative inactivity is the least of the concerns. The readiness of Rakitic, who missed the last two qualifiers after an unsettled summer, when Barcelona told him he could leave Camp Nou at the right price, is an issue. “I needed to clear my mind,” Rakitic explained of his September absence from the national squad.
Two of Dalic’s most trusted strikers, Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic, are still adjusting to the clubs they joined in the summer. Rebic has yet to start a game for troubled AC Milan, and while Perisic, at Bayern Munich on loan from Inter Milan, has made an impact in the Bundesliga, it has largely been from the Bayern bench. At the back, neither of the trusted sentries from the World Cup, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, are at the peak of their powers, Lovren having played his only league game so far this term for Liverpool and Vida enduring Besiktas’ dreadful start to the Turkish season.
“A few players are not at the top of their form with their clubs,” admitted Dalic, who took Al Ain to the Arabian Gulf League title in 2015 and to an Asian Champions League final the following year. “When we get together as a national team, you put your club football aside. It’s something special and we are a group who believe in ourselves.”
The greatest stimulus of that belief is the experience of Russia 2018, but a process of gradual renewal was always going to be required of Dalic. His midfield maestros, Modric and Rakitic, are 34 and 31. Other World Cup heroes, like Mario Mandzukic and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, have retired from international duty, sensing they had been on a journey a small country like theirs will probably conjure up only once in a generation.
Updated: October 10, 2019 10:28 AM