Saturday 05 May 2018, 08:00

El Clásico’s Croatians set to shine in Russia

  • Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic set to line up in tomorrow’s Clásico

  • All three could play together in central midfield for Croatia at Russia 2018

  • profiles this talented trio

While Croatia are not among the favourites for this year’s FIFA World Cup™, they do have one clear and considerable area of strength.

Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr pinpointed it without hesitation, stressing that his Super Eagles must be set up in their opening match to combat “one of the best midfields” in the competition. Some have even suggested it will be the most formidable of all in Russia, and events at Camp Nou tomorrow might just support that claim.

Three Croatian midfielders are, after all, set to do battle once again in club football’s most famous fixture, with Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic lining up against the Real Madrid duo of Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic in the final Clásico of the season. And although the clubs’ intense rivalry has placed stresses on friendships in the past, this trio retain close bonds.

Rakitic has joked in the past of wishing Modric “scores five goals in every game... but still doesn’t win”. Modric, for his part, said before a Clásico last year "We will hug and talk after the match... hopefully, I will have to console him!”.

If fit, Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic look likely to form a formidable triumvirate in central midfield for Croatia at Russia 2018. Add in competition for places from the likes of Fiorentina’s Milan Badelj and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic, and it is no wonder that this department of Zlatko Dalic’s team is held in such high regard.

With El Clásico looming and the World Cup on the horizon, looks closer at the Croatians set to play central roles in both these footballing dramas.

LUKA MODRIC Age: 32 Previous World Cups: 2006, 2014

Back in 2012, readers of Madrid sports daily MARCA infamously voted Modric the worst signing of that La Liga season. Fast forward to December 2017 and a poll in that same newspaper led to the Croatia captain being selected alongside Alfredo Di Stefano, Zinedine Zidane and Raul in an all-time Real Madrid XI. That remarkable journey reflects the growing and now widespread appreciation that Modric is one of the best midfielders in the world. Tireless in his running, intelligent in his positioning and flawless in his passing, this three-time UEFA Champions League winner remains the jewel in Croatia’s crown.

On Modric... “He is our best player - he's the engine that makes us go. He's also a captain who leads by example. He always gives his maximum, he sets high standards with his attitude, aggression and energy on the pitch, and with his behaviour off it.” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic

IVAN RAKITIC Age: 30 Previous World Cups: 2014

Rakitic made his name as a dazzling attacking midfielder at Sevilla but, since moving to Barcelona, has proved himself to be a true all-rounder. Like Modric, he is a playmaker marked out by his technique and intelligence, and he has emerged as one of the first names on Ernesto Valverde’s team sheet this season. The magnificent displays he produced, while deputising for Sergio Busquets when Barça's peerless pivot was injured underlined the depth of Rakitic’s versatility, and he is likely to be just as influential for Croatia at Russia 2018.

On Rakitic... "He has had an extraordinary season." Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde

MATEO KOVACIC Age: 23 Previous World Cups: 2014

The youngest member of our trio celebrates his 24th birthday on Sunday and, having started Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg against Bayern Munich, will hope to have another reason to celebrate at  Camp Nou. Like his compatriots, Kovacic made his name as an attacking playmaker before adapting brilliantly to a more defensive role, first with Inter Milan and, more recently, in Madrid. Modric described Kovacic as a “phenomenal talent” and recommended him to Madrid as a signing target, and it is widely expected that this classy midfielder will prove to be his idol’s successor for both club and country.

On Kovacic... "I am sure that he will succeed Modric, as he has incredible talent. I adore him. Although he has improved a lot, we have not yet seen all he can give. But we will. He is the future of Madrid." Darijo Srna, Croatia’s most-capped player