They cut it close, but as the final whistle blew in Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Thursday night, Croatia snuck through as runners-up in Group F behind Morocco after a tight affair in both match. Croatia had a little luck, and perhaps were most fortunate that the bulk of Belgium’s xG (3.39) fell to a Romelu Lukaku completely zapped of his powers.
Luka Modric, Croatia’s mainstay right central midfielder, cover multiple positions as he often does at both international and club level. On three separate occassions in the first half with Marcelo Brozovic ahead of the ball, Modric was the one to sprint back to provide Croatia with numbers, and in one instance in particular in the fourth minute, it was his vital intervention in Zone 14 which put a Belgium attack to a halt.
Modric’s press-resistancy was key for Croatia again, as was his ball progression, off-ball movement, and runs into the right half-space. His performance today was a continuation of the running theme of his tournament so far:
The precise wizardry of Luka Modric
It’s not new and it doesn’t catch headlines. It’s subtle, wise, quiet domination from one of the greatest artists in football history standing strong in his late 30s. Through the first two games in the World Cup, Luka Modric slung more progressive passes (17) than anyone in the tournament.
Maybe his performances have been swept under the rug because there are too many storylines through the group stages, and other players — Bruno Fernandes, Antoine Griezmann, Theo Hernandez, Kylian Mbappe (and so many others) — dominating things in the final third that have rightfully grabbed the most praise. Croatia have also put in one underwhelming performance against Morocco before disposing of a raw Canada side in which Mateo Kovacic was their best player.
But Modric has been good in all his minutes while this Croatia team is worse than it was in 2018. The Real Madrid midfielder has to do more than he did four years ago (which, physically is probably not going to be possible).
As always, Modric does a bit of everything. He’s helped organize Croatia’s press, sometimes marshalling the line alongside Andrej Kramaric as the highest player on the pitch. Other times he’s forming a double pivot alongside Marcelo Brozovic or covering for other players defensively in transition. Croatia also rely on his creative juices from the right wing where he can curve in a diagonal cross or get to the byline for a cut-back:
Check the shoulder drop. Modric passes, feints, and then changes direction quickly behind Alphonso Davies, unlocking a through-ball for Brozovic to hit. There is no cover for Davies for two simple reasons: Atiba Hutchins is, respectfully, not youthful, and he has to track Kramaric’s run into the box. The cut-back is perfect.
Modric is pushing through again. It’s reasonable to expect he’ll need a lot of rest in the second half of the season.