Luka Modric orchestrated stirring Real Madrid comebacks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea, now the 36-year-old has Manchester City and another Champions League final in his sights. Modric’s mesmeric, curving pass with the outside of his right foot for Rodrygo to volley in resuscitated Real against Chelsea, just when it looked like they were dead and buried. His eye-of-a-needle pass through the legs of Presnel Kimpembe for Karim Benzema to finish gave the Spaniards life against PSG, levelling a contest that until that point had gone almost entirely in the opposition’s favour.
Modric’s craft and guile, along with Benzema’s ruthless finishing, have been Real Madrid’s most devastating weapons en route to the Champions League semi-finals. The first leg is at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium on Tuesday.
But the Croatian international midfielder is a warrior, too, lifting Real in their most desperate moments through his grit, resilience and sheer force of will.
Two minutes before he bamboozled PSG with that feathered pass through to Benzema in the last 16, Modric had already raised the Santiago Bernabeu to its feet.
PSG were 2-1 up on aggregate and Lionel Messi was off on the counter-attack, racing out of his own half, about to embark on a trademark, scuttling run down the right wing.
Modric, despite being in the twilight of his career, scampered after Messi, tracked him and closed in.
He lunged across with his right foot, hooked the ball out of play and clattered Messi to the ground, the stadium roaring with delight, a surge of momentum crackling through the stands.
Benzema’s decisive goals came two and four minutes later.
When asked in an interview with AFP in 2019 what his favourite thing to do in football was, Modric did not say score, pass or dribble.
“Tackle!” he replied with a grin. “Everything gives me joy, but sometimes a tackle can be a big part of a game. When you do it, it feels great.”
Modric has a sense of how to change a game. He can rouse his teammates with a challenge or a run and protect them with his passing and possession. In the toughest moments, he steps up.
“What Modric does, only Modric does,” former Real Madrid striker Jorge Valdano said last month. “When the ball passes through his feet, the play just flows like it’s the easiest thing in the world.”
As a teenager, scouts in Croatia told Modric he was too slight to make it in the professional game, while Arsene Wenger supposedly turned down the chance to sign him for Arsenal on account of his spindly frame.
At Tottenham, Harry Redknapp took time to be convinced to play Modric in central midfield instead of the wing and in La Liga numerous opponents have tried to rough Modric up, only to find themselves bouncing off him instead.
“Always around me there were a lot of doubts, about my quality, my style, my physique,” Modric told AFP. “They said, ‘You are too weak, too fragile, you will not reach the top.’
“But this didn’t affect me at all. It just motivated me even more to prove people wrong.”
Doubts about Modric’s physicality and toughness may have been erased, but his leadership is often still overlooked.
After knocking out PSG, an ecstatic Modric circled around the Real Madrid changing room hugging, high-fiving and congratulating every player, physio, coach and kitman he could find.
Former Real coach Zinedine Zidane sees a future coach in Modric.
“He’s very smart,” Zidane said last year. “If Luka wants to be a coach, he has it inside him, he knows football. If he wants it, he will be a coach.”
And there is that harder edge to Modric that Zidane also had as a player.
When Real beat Barcelona in April last year, it was Modric confronting Gerard Pique as the defender made his way out to quibble with the referees.
“Are you about to go and complain now?” asked Modric. “Four minutes of added time?” Pique replied. “How long do you want?” Modric fired back.
Manchester City’s coach Pep Guardiola might have coached Modric if Barcelona had acted more decisively on their interest in 2008. Instead, Modric spent 2008-2012 at Tottenham.
In some ways, his style might have been an even better fit for the Barcelona of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, two icons of the game.
Modric has arguably surpassed even them now to become the finest midfielder of his generation.
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