By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | June 27, 2021

The boot that caresses the ball with precision is the boot that rules the world of soccer! William Ross Wallace will not turn in his grave for a twist in his famous line. I’m sure of that.

If this American poet with Scottish roots, from his high seat in heaven, has seen the decimation of his countrymen by Croatia, he will nod in agreement. And if the performance of Croatia’s most capped player (141) in the last league match against Scotland is anything to go by, then tomorrow’s match against Spain should not be a sweat. No, Spain is no pushover; Luis Enrique’s side even without stalwarts has shown some bite. But so have Luka Modrić and his men.

Croatia breaks open a packed defence

Mind you, the Scottish coach Steve Clarke packed his defence with a 3-5-2 formation that was difficult for Modrić and his garrison to breach. They went back and forth to create a chink in the opposition defence, opening smart holes just enough for them to storm their citadel.

This time for Luka Modrić
Nikola Vlašić surrounded by teammates after the first strike.

First, it was Nikola Vlašić in the 16th minute, who powered in a low volley past a crowded Scottish defence to ignite a spark in the Croatians. Ivan Perišić who works up the left flank with the speed of a horse and precision of a Boeing on Auto-Pilot sends a header towards Vlasic, who does the rest.

All this while Modrić has been doing a Diego Maradona in the midfield; knocking off the ball at the first touch for his teammates to move ahead. The sight of Modrić playing with the genius of the Argentine from 1986 in Mexico was a delight. For all those who were wondering how he could be the FIFA Player of the Year 2018, UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, Ballon D’Or 2018 and Golden Ball Best Player of FIFA World Cup 2018, this was enough proof on the world stage, under tremendous pressure.

Luka Modrić leads from the front

Just one point and a huge possibility of elimination, the World Cup finalists were looking at the end of the barrel. But Perišić had thrown them a lifeline against the Czech Republic in the previous match and the Croats were not going to go down without a fight.

Scotland level the scores through Callum McGregor. This only firms up Croatia’s resolve to quicken the pace and make repeated attempts to find holes in the opposition defence. The speed, rhythm and precision with which the ball changed foot was a delight. Modrić who controlled play had 115 touches and effected 98 passes and one assist that sealed the Scottish fate and took his team to the last 16.

This time for Luka Modrić
“This is a natural ability with years of well-honed skill. Not many in world football can do that. Simply stunning,” said the commentator with excitement.

Twenty minutes after the equaliser, came the peach of a goal that would have had William Ross Wallace jumping off his seat. Mateo Kovačić from just inside the box sends in a diagonal towards Modrić who is lurking dangerously outside. Even as the ball is coming towards him, the Croatian captain decides to go in for the kill. Without stopping the ball he meets leather with the outside of his right boot to send the ball curling into the top left corner beating the agile David Marshall. “This is a natural ability with years of well-honed skill. Not many in world football can do that. Simply stunning,” screams the commentator.

There was one glitch though, and another gem from Modrić all within a space of two minutes. In the 21st minute, he sends a dangerous volley towards Marshall from outside the box, from the same spot as the peach. Marshall manages to tip it over. Two minutes later, Modrić has run back and is into his box when he loses the ball. Luckily for Croatia, John McGinn’s shot was intercepted by Dominik Livaković.

Perišić rises to the occasion, yet again

Ivan Perišić rises to the occasion yet again in the 77th minute with a diagonal header to set up a clash in the last 16 with Spain. Coming to the Euros, although there was pressure on the Croatians with their World Cup performances, the sceptic knew that they had lost around 8 matches from their 14 encounters in all competitions since the start of 2020. Not a healthy sign. That was seen in their opener against England. The passing was rusty in the first 20 minutes. Before 2020, they had lost just eight of their previous 33 matches (W17D8).

This time for Luka Modrić
Ivan Perišić never disappoints.

This form from pre-2020 is what they displayed. It was tiki-taka against Scotland at Hampden Park, Glasgow. What will Spain employ? Luis Enrique has taken some bold decisions whilst composing his squad for Euro 2020. They beat Slovakia 5-0 in their last league match. They have the confidence. But Croatia has Perišić and the hungry Modrić who will want to show to the world that 2018 and the bag full of awards was not a fluke.

At 35 years he is the midfield general that his teammates will be looking to. The team is pepped up. As for their fans back home, the mood has changed. Even the sceptics know that they are a dangerous unit now.

One more thing…

This I quote from Luka Modrić, My Autobiography: “But, let me go back to football. Every day of the quarantine I trained, following the programme the club and my personal trainer had developed for me. I have the privilege of having a house with a big yard, lots of greenery and space to train. I also have a well-equipped fitness room within the house. My work was intensive and to a schedule. But what surprised me was the level of my motivation, which was at a maximum, despite the constant uncertainty about when our activities would resume. It never crossed my mind to stop and ask: “What’s the point in training this hard, if, for example, they decide we won’t play till autumn?”

Far from it, my desire to train, to go back the ball, only grew stronger day by day—I just missed working with the team, playing matches, spending time with my teammates. I have always loved football, but now, on the cusp of my 35th birthday, I love it more than ever. And I am even more certain I will actively play for as long as I feel this fire, and for as long as my legs will serve me.

There’s enough power in those legs and fire in his belly to see Croatia lift Euro 2020. Coach Zlatko Dalic will have to make smart changes in the playing XI. It’s time for the duo to blast through the finish line.

Pic Courtesy: @lukamodric10/Instagram / @ivanperisic444/Instagram

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