MOSCOW (Reuters) - In Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final against England Luka Modric showed, for the umpteenth time in his career, that you can’t keep a good man down as he orchestrated a third successive comeback that sent Croatia into the dreamland of the final.
For almost an hour of Wednesday’s game Modric just could not get a foothold, as England’s relentless pressing harried him into mistakes and cut down his supply line.
England deservedly led and should have had more goals as Modric and his misfiring team mates were perhaps perceived as suffering the effects of back-to-back extra time and penalty shootout wins over Denmark and Russia.
However, as the second half unfolded, if England thought the job was done and they had run the legs off the 32-year-old, they had clearly not been paying attention to his extraordinary career.
As befits a man playing his 111th international and 11th in the World Cup, Modric did not panic and did not waver, instead he gradually found a way to shoehorn himself and his team back into the game.
There were no extravagant 50-yard passes or wavy runs leaving multiple defenders in his wake, just a steady cranking up of the momentum. The movement got sharper, passes were more quickly released and there was the trademark bodyswerve and check to suddenly create a yard of space from nothing.
Galvanised by their leader, his team mates, far from flagging, looked the fitter of the two teams and started giving him and the equally re-energised Ivan Rakitic targets - and the passes started to stick.
Ivan Perisic duly equalised and Mario Mandzukic won it in extra time, where it was Modric still skipping around the turf like a spring lamb who had emerged as the dominant force on the pitch while an exhausted Jordan Henderson had to be substituted after chasing him all night.
“Luka has never conformed to the norm when it comes to the usual positions a central midfielder would take up to receive the ball,” Jermaine Jenas wrote this week as he contemplated the challenge England faced in nullifying his former Tottenham Hotspur team mate.
“In training he would get the ball from anywhere and all of a sudden he would be at you - and past you. He is quicker than most people think, and a lot stronger too.
“When you consider how well balanced he is, I just don’t see a better player in that area of the pitch anywhere on the planet right now.”
Now, it is France’s turn to try to keep the lid on the Real Madrid man and if they task N’Golo Kante with the job it could be the most pivotal match-up of the final.
Kante reigns supreme at snuffing out danger at source, yet even the arch anticipator might find himself torn between abandoning his preferred zonal patrol and chasing Modric into his unconventional shadows.
France did a superb job at generally forcing Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne into cul-de-sacs in their semi and they know they will to repeat the job on Sunday - and not just for an hour.
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge