Luka Modric remains key to Croatia's chances
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Croatia go into Sunday’s Group D opener claiming the upper hand in a key Wembley battleground after warning Gareth Southgate that their “midfield is better” than England’s.
That was certainly the case three years ago, when Croatia outmaneuvered England in the World Cup semi-final. And, even with the emergence of technically impressive English players such as Mason Mount and Declan Rice, the Croats are convinced it is still the case now.
“Our midfielders can play against anyone. I think our midfield is better than theirs, so I hope that is somewhere we can do well,” said Croatian keeper Dominik Livaković.
Naturally, the burden of responsibility for Croatia still falls on Modric, who has the capacity to run the game if granted the time and space and who was the chief architect of that 2018 victory in Moscow, when his side registered 55 per cent possession.
“Luka is special. I don’t even know how to describe him,” said Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic.
“We are very good friends outside the pitch and so I know how he conducts himself and he is a great, great professional. He has worked so hard to get where he is now – one of the best midfielders in the world. At his age you see a lot of players who are maybe starting a downturn in their careers but he is still at the highest level. He is phenomenal. He has given so much to the national team and so much for his club. He plays differently to everyone else and he will be remembered as one of the three best midfielders in the world in this era, if not the best.”
Around Modric, Marcelo Brozovic has been a stand-out performer in Inter Milan’s title season, former Everton player Nikola Vlasic has emerged as one of the country’s rising stars, and Kovacic has finally established himself as a starter.
“I see the midfield as the main topic here,” said Kovacic.
“England are very good in terms of attacking, as are we, so it’s two pretty big teams and it’s gonna be a tough team in terms of the midfield.
“They have an excellent midfield. Mount is in excellent form. Rice as well in West Ham, and [Jordan] Henderson. They have a lot of quality there but so have we – we have excellence there. So it’s going to be a tough match, a lot of fights in the midfield, but we’re ready for that. We all know what kind of match we have ahead of us. We’re preparing and we are for every match and we’re going to do our best and give our all.”
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There are some notable absentees from Croatia’s 2018 victory.
Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, Danijel Subasic and Ivan Strinic have since retired from international duty. Matching their World Cup final performance is a big ask as they look towards the next generation, still looking at their 35-year-old skipper for inspiration.
“This is a new competition and a new tournament,” said Kovacic.
“What is important is that we start the tournament well. Going through the group would be a success. After that we shall see. As in Russia, anything can happen in the knockout stage.”