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They are adversaries in Spain, representing La Liga giants and arch-rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona.
But for Croatia, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are compatriots and kindred spirits — “one body and one soul”, according to their coach Zltako Dalic.
They are the axis of the Croatia team, their most influential figures and the pair who represent the biggest threat to England’s hopes of victory in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final.
For Dalic, the duo have been the most accomplished midfield pairing at the World Cup, without whose influence Croatia would unquestionably long since have exited Russia, such is their reliance on them.
Their talent and guile on the ball is matched by a impressive work-rate off it, with the pair having covered a combined total of 98.3km in their five games in Russia, significantly more than England’s midfielders.
While Modric probes opponents with guile and industry, opening up defences with a killer final ball or leaving goalkeepers floundering with long-range strikes, Rakitic is the perfect foil, calm and diligent, affording his midfield partner the freedom to attack and providing the security for him to do so.
“They are rivals in the Spanish league, but for Croatia they are one body and one soul,” said Dalic. “It’s different when they play for their clubs. International football is different. There’s a great atmosphere in the squad and that’s one of the keys of our success.
“With Rakitic, I agree he’s playing really well. It’s a continuation of the season he had for Barcelona. He and Luka have been the best central midfield pairing at the World Cup and hopefully they can continue that against England.
“It’s not only how he’s been controlling the match, but also his calmness, as we saw with two decisive penalties in the shoot-outs. I think it’s the best he’s played in his career.”
Modric’s value to Croatia was underlined by the fact he was one of only two players left in Croatia’s starting line-up for their final group game against Iceland, even though they had already qualified for the last 16.
Whereas Gareth Southgate chose to rest his skipper Harry Kane in the corresponding fixture against Belgium, opposite number Dalic clearly felt his side could not cope without their inspirational leader.
What has made Modric’s displays here in Russia all the more impressive is that he has done so against the backdrop of a potential jail term in his homeland, having been charged with perjury in relation to a football corruption scandal.
But the former Tottenham midfielder has somehow been able to shut out that potential distraction to inspire his country to the brink of a first World Cup final, even if there are many in Croatia who debated whether he should be allowed to lead his country with the scandal hanging over him.
For England, the chief concern is how to nullify the threat of Modric and Rakitic.
England vs Croatia: The big one
In their quarter-final win over Russia, they had more influence once the team switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 and should have won in extra-time, without the need for a second penalty shoot-out win.
They are likely to start the semi-final with Modric and Rakitic sitting deep, in the knowledge they can change formation when they choose to open up the game.
One thing is abundantly clear: suppress the threat of Modric and Rakitic and you disarm Croatia.
If England can fulfil that remit, a first World Cup final for 52 years will be firmly within their grasp.
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