COMMENT: Former Croatia coach Slaven Bilic says his countryman is Real Madrid's most important player - and the midfielder could prove it against the Selecao
By Kris Voakes in Sao Paulo
Having rested on the shoulders of some of the greatest players in World Cup history, the iconic yellow jersey will be worn by the Barcelona star on Thursday evening when Brazil open the 2014 finals against Croatia in Sao Paulo.
But while most eyes will be directed towards Neymar, his opposite number could well be the ace in Niko Kovac’s pack, as the European outfit attempt to play party poopers at the Arena Corinthians.
Luka Modric has quietly gone about becoming one of the most effective midfielders in the world, with his performances for Real Madrid helping the Spanish giants to become European champions for a record 10th time in 2013-14.
Yet the former Tottenham midfielder remains a largely overlooked talent, with his club form often overshadowed by the bigger names employed at the Santiago Bernabeu. While he is clearly his national side’s key player, Croatia’s relative status in the global game means he has flown under the radar for the most part ahead of the World Cup kick-off.
His performances, laced with quality both on and off the ball in the centre of Madrid’s midfield, were one of the main reasons the Blancos enjoyed such success in the Champions League. With wonderful vision, superb weight of pass and the humility to know when to allow others to run a game and when to take a stranglehold himself, Modric could well become one of the stars of the tournament if his compatriots can give him the support needed.
Former Croatia coach Slaven Bilic is in no doubt that underestimating Modric’s effect on a side is a very bad idea.
“He might not be Real Madrid’s best player – we all know that is Cristiano Ronaldo and then Gareth Bale – but this year he has been their most important,” Bilic claimed recently.
“Luka is in the same category as Xavi was a few years ago with Barcelona or Andrea Pirlo has been for Italy.
“All the players around him gain from his game. He makes them 10 to 20 per cent better than they actually are.”
The one question is, are Croatia at 110-120% better than Brazil at 100?
With Mexico and Cameroon awaiting Modric et al after their opening fixture, all will not be lost should they go down to the defeat most observers are expecting against the hosts in Sao Paulo.
Yet Modric and Barcelona-bound Sevilla star Ivan Rakitic will be keen to strike up a winning formula quickly in order to help make up for an early exit in Germany eight years ago and a complete absence from the 2010 finals in South Africa.
Although Brazil are being tipped to hit the ground running, the slightest drop in intensity could allow the Real Madrid man to take over.
At 28 years of age, Modric has just 28 minutes of World Cup finals football under his belt. But if he can reproduce the form that helped Madrid to glory, then he could well be a feature of this tournament long into the knockout stages.
Brazil have been warned.