There’s a reason why Andres Iniesta has described the Croatians as ‘two of the most complete midfielders I see, two modern footballers who have it all’ and when the team sheet circulated, you sensed that England were going to face their full force.
Internazionale’s Marcelo Brozovic started in front of Croatia’s defence, holding the midfield —allowing two of the most complete players of their generation to operate and inflict danger high up the field.
What made another night of agonising tension so hard to bear was that England had swatted the threat away for 45 minutes.
The game’s opening seconds did provide an ominous portent of what might lie ahead when Jordan Henderson, carrying the unenviable responsibility of winning this midfield war, fouled Rakitic, who navigated a quick free-kick to Modric before England could blink.
But 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 Kieran 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 relentlessly sought out with the long ball.
Southgate correctly intuited 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.
Southgate had said before the game that he would not let the pair of technicians worry England to death.
‘Bloody hell, we played Nuneaton Borough in the cup with Middlesbrough once and I thought their centre forward was Eusebio because we’d built him up that much,’ was his memorable remark.
So although Jordan Henderson was watchful of Modric, England did not fall into the trap of allowing the Real Madrid player to mesmerise them.
Rakitic — who did not light up this night — created the first serious Croatian chance in the last minutes of the first half, chesting a ball down into shooting range and accelerating into the box but Kyle Walker moved rapidly to block.
There was some telling gratitude from John Stones for team mate in that moment.
The nod and the slapping of hands said as much. The inconvenient truth of that first half was that those working around the stars looked very ordinary indeed.
Modric’s body language telegraphed a desperation simply to get on the ball.
He was lurking in the inside right channel for Vrsaljko to lay the ball inside for him, as Croatia found some opportunity down England’s right on 40 minutes. The defender ballooned wildly over from a 35 yards.
Modric did not even look at the Atletico Madrid player, as they trudged away.
But it is Modric’s quiet refusal to concede which makes him such a winner.
When the intensity of England’s attacking threat began to fade, his latent threat began to surface with a venom.
The outballs to Sterling dried up, Croatia found themselves able to breathe and Modric was their 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 Ivan Perisic, forcing Walker to put himself in the most eye-watering line of duty.
It was he who led Alli had been led a merry dance on the same England flank, the preface to Brozovic arcing a left-footed ball that Mario Mandzukic took down on his chest and unleashed at Jordan Pickford.
By the end of 90 minutes, England looked desperately 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 them to distraction.
This adventure ended in the most desperately prosaic way — Tripper’s elementary failure to deal with the header which Perisic headed into Mandzukic’s path. The danger men did not score but there was no mistaking who had engineered this recovery. Modric left to an ovation with victory in sight. — Daily Mail.