The black humour about Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and what they might do to England had been washing around social media all day. ‘They don’t scare me! Football’s coming home’ ran one post beneath an image of a bare-chested Little and Large.
A brutal reality had dawned after Modric made a monumental contribution to the way Croatia shifted the game’s balance back in their favour. Ivan Perisic delivered the dynamite and the vital equaliser. His incessant wing shifts with Ante Rebic troubled Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier. Perisic also tried a lot as Croatia came back in the second half and made his luck. But Modric was the orchestrator in chief.
Where others seem to be in a tearing hurry, he creates time and space. He capitalised as England struggled to maintain the composure and shape which had held him in check for 45 minutes. Any one of a half dozen moments encapsulated the contribution, though the dance with the ball on the Croatia right midway through the second half was a good as any. As Dele Alli chased Modric’s shadow, Marcelo Brozovic found space to receive from him, arcing a left-footed ball that Mario Mandzukic took down on his chest and unleashed at Jordan Pickford.
You knew as soon as the team sheet circulated that England were going to face the full force of Modric and Rakitic. Inter Milan’s Brozovic started in front of Croatia’s defence, holding the midfield and – in theory at least – allowing two of the most complete players of their generation to operate and inflict danger high up the field.
But what made a night of agonising English tension so hard to bear was that England had swatted the threat away for 45 minutes. By half-time you were left wondering how on earth a team with Real Madrid’s Modric and Barcelona’s Rakitic in it could so lack control.
The only goal Modric assisted in that period was England’s. His challenge on Dele Alli five minutes into the game summed up Croatia’s first half: careless and casual. Modric stood, hands on hips, staring into the turf as Tripper’s free-kick powered in. It was a brutal early punishment.
Zlatko Dalic might have thought he would win tactical war by releasing his two star players up the pitch but Gareth Southgate achieved the same effect with a far more unexpected strategy.
The mantra of playing out from the back was dispensed with and Raheem Sterling was sought out with the long ball from the start. Southgate correctly calculated that he could exploit Dejan Lovren’s vulnerability to pace. Dalic’s players were so busy trying to deal with the problem that they could not get Modric and Rakitic on the ball.
Though Jordan Henderson was watchful of Modric, England did not fall into the trap of allowing the Real Madrid player to mesmerise them. They harried and chased and when the Liverpool player was exposed to him, he coped. They kept their shape.
They could not maintain it, even though they were good enough in that first spell to have put the game out of sight. Southgate spoke of ‘hardened warriors’ in the Croatia team, ‘mentally strong in their decision-making.’ When all was said and done, England lacked them.
The intensity of their attacking threat began to recede. The out balls to Sterling dried up. Croatia found themselves less pinned back and began to find some attacking intent of their own, operating higher up the field. ‘We created a hard press on their back line,’ Dalic said. ‘Modric and Rakatic pressed their back line. At half time I told them “calmly pass the ball, don’t lose your heads”.’
Attempts to restrict Modric evaporated. The pitch became his own, Henderson’s influence receded. Modric simply eluded him and began to link with the forwards. He was the creative nexus, traversing yards of turf imperceptibly, ghosting into spaces.
It was he who jinked around the right-hand side of England’s area after 65 minutes and delivered the cross which was cleared to Perisic, forcing Walker to put himself in the most eye-watering line of duty.
Modric’s sheer physical effort was just as extraordinary. ‘I tried to make substitutions but nobody wanted to be subbed, Dalic said. ‘Nobody wanted to say ‘I’m not ready to go’. This is what shows character and makes me proud. Never give up.’
By the end of 90 minutes, England looked very vulnerable, looking for a way to regroup and though there was a greater composure in the first half of extra-time, Modric continued to drive at them.
This adventure ended in the most desperate fashion: Tripper’s elementary failure to deal with the header which Perisic headed into Mandzukic’s path. The Croatian danger men did not score yet there was no mistaking who had engineered this recovery. Modric was mobbed.