Modric gives Croatia hope of completing astonishing journey
Underdogs face ultimate test in World Cup final against formidable French side
Croatia’s star midfielder Luka Modric finds himself carrying the hopes and expectations of a united nation on his shoulders. Photograph: Getty Images
With charges of perjury still hanging over him in relation to a tax and bribery case against an official at his former club, there are those back at home who wondered just why Luka Modric agreed to play at this World Cup and quite a few who felt he shouldn’t have been allowed to.
As Croatia look to complete what would be an astonishing journey here in Russia, the 32-year-old now now finds himself carrying the hopes and expectations of a united nation on his shoulders.
The scale of the midfielder’s talent always would guarantee him top billing in most international teams but having taken this one when even a place in the play-offs needed to be salvaged, manager Zlatko Dalic has sought to make the Real Madrid star the Croatia’s beating heart.
So far, so good although France look a rather more formidable outfit than any Croatia has beaten so far.
As the title decider approaches, the foreign invasion of Russia that the tournament had brought continues to recede. The number of fans from the two nations that will contest the game will inevitably be bolstered over the coming 24 hours but with the best supported sides, mostly South American, all long since departed, the neutrals from abroad who have stuck around are generally a mix of the wealthy and well connected.
Croatia’s underdog status – it has a slightly smaller population than the Republic of Ireland, fewer registered players, fewer professionals and a less than a third of the GDP per head of capita to spend on developing them – should ensure they attract a great deal of the floating vote. It will be the French, though, who are likely to be cheered on by those who like to back a winner.
Didier Deschamps’ men are not quite unbackable favourites but after the way in which they have negotiated the knockout stages they can be considered firm ones. Their style of play has been to everyone’s liking with the team’s progress built on solid defending and lightning-quick counter-attacks but the calm resolve they displayed while resisting Belgian pressure in the semi-final was hard not to admire and the pace and precision with which they spring into attack is undeniably thrilling.
On the face of it, Dalic’s players have passed more, exerted more pressure and scored more goals but then the raw numbers are skewed slightly by the fact that Croatia have, after being taken to extra time in each of their last three outings, effectively played an extra game.
The English speculated, not unreasonably, that the strain of it having happened twice might mean they would fade as their game wore on through Wednesday evening. Instead, Gareth Southgate’s side was overwhelmed by the energy and relentless enterprise that Modric and co displayed, particularly in the second half.
The Croat players clearly took pleasure in proving those guilty of the speculation wrong but, inevitably, the French have been suggesting precisely the same thing and it would be quite something if a generally settled side is entirely unaffected by the added strain involved.
A few of them looked to be struggling by the time the final whistle came the other night and in any other circumstances Dalic would surely be obliged to make a couple of changes. He said the other night, however, that he could not persuade players to come off in a World Cup semi-final. Dropping them for the final would be unlikely to go any more smoothly.
What the manager must do, though, is decide how to give his team the best chance possible of beating the French. Against England, he pushed Modric and Ivan Rakitic further forward than usual in order to rattle players he really didn’t rate and left Marcelo Brozovic largely alone in the holding midfield role. Something a little more conservative seems likely this time given the quality of the opposition but Croatia will still aim to make the running with their captain set to be central again to the way they look to stretch their opponents so as to create openings in the final third of the pitch.
The French, it seems, would not have it any other way. The centre halves, Raphael Varane in particular, have been outstanding over the course of this tournament so far while the two young full-backs have stood up each test so far in a way few could have anticipated they would.
The defensive screen provided by N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba has been highly effective too with the former a strong contender for player of the tournament, the latter in with an outside shot, at least, of nicking the title if he has a really big final. Then there are the attacking talents of Antoine Griezmann and and Kylian Mbappe; between them all France simply should have enough to win finally putting an end to unfavourable comparisons between this generation and the one of 20 years ago.
Few could possibly have expected Croatia to get this far, however, and nobody should write them off. And if they do win, the debate about Modric and his legal problems will surely be forgotten. If, that is of course, there are still any legal problems.
Croatia: Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic; Rakitic, Brozovic; Rebic, Modric, Perisic; Mandzukic.
France: Lloris; Pavard, Umtiti, Varane, Hernandez; Kante, Pogba; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.
Referee: N Pitana (Argentina).