Friday 19 January 2018

Croatian match-winners can halt Ronaldo's gallop

The influential Luka Modric returns to the Croatia midfield tonight. Photo: AFP/Getty
The influential Luka Modric returns to the Croatia midfield tonight. Photo: AFP/Getty

Danny Higginbotham

The Euro 2016 knockout stages start on today and while England and Ireland's half of the draw is very congested, I believe that Croatia are the best team in the other half.

They have more match-winners than most, but crucially they play as a team too, with different ways of scoring goals. They have far more range to their game than Portugal, who they play in Lens, which is why I am backing them to win this game and make it all the way to the final.

Of course everyone has been very impressed with Luka Modric and he is a tremendous player, arguably the best midfielder in Europe at the moment, up there with Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. But as brilliant as Modric is, Croatia beat Spain 2-1 without him this week, which is why they won Group C. This is the opposite of a one-man team.

For example, Modric's ability to dictate the game from deep owes a lot to the hard work of Milan Badelj, who I've been very impressed with so far. He is Modric and Ivan Rakitic's insurance policy. He can sit the deepest in a 4-1-4-1 and looks after Vedran Corluka and Domagoj Vida at centre-back.

Badelj makes life easier for Modric and allows him to play his best football. You can tell that Modric is a great midfielder, like Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso or Paul Scholes, in his ability to find space even in a congested midfield. He never looks rushed. Whenever Modric picks the ball up he is on the half-turn, always already with a picture in his mind. Scholes was a master of playing like that.

Modric scored that brilliant volley against Turkey in Croatia's first game, but he was also influential in the 2-2 draw against the Czech Republic. Tomas Rosicky was meant to be the Czech No 10 but he was chasing Modric around all game. The match only turned when Modric went off and Croatia lost their two-goal lead. But this whole Croatian side helps to make space for each other, and that intelligent selfless team-play is what sets them apart.

What I like about Croatia is that they play as a unit, and you can tell that by the partnerships they have all over the pitch. Down the right-hand side they have Darijo Srna and Marcelo Brozovic, who work brilliantly together. Brozovic has got incredible energy and he will always get into the area when the ball goes down the left-hand side. That is why they say in Croatia that he has "lungs of steel".

So when Ivan Perisic runs down the left, as he likes to keep the width more, Brozovic is the one who drives inside to meet Perisic's crosses, while also making the space for Srna to overlap outside him. But while Srna runs outside Brozovic, the left-back Ivan Strinic is more likely to back up play behind Perisic rather than getting forward. Those two have a good partnership as well. This is clearly a very well-drilled team.

With Modric and Rakitic in midfield Croatia are able to dominate through the middle. But they can always go wide if they want to, and that ability to mix it up and score different types of goal is crucial at international level. The players' varying skills bring the best out of each other, which is so important to well-balanced football teams.

When crosses come into the box they have the physical threat of Mario Mandzukic in the box. He is an interesting case because he has only scored one of Croatia's 20 goals in the qualifiers for this tournament. But people should not be too quick to judge him on that. He is the front man, but he does so much unselfish running for the team.

Look at him making those in-to-out runs into the wide areas, taking a centre-back with him, making the space for Rakitic to attack. That is their fluid clever movement which is so important to how they play, and which will give them an edge over Portgual.

After scraping through Group F, I do think that we will see a different Portugal team now. From watching Cristiano Ronaldo in the first two Portugal games you could see a player who looked desperate to become the first player to score in four tournaments. But I thought that his two goals this week against Hungary looked to change everything, taking that weight off his shoulders and bringing the freedom back into his game.

Portugal tried a 4-3-3 against Austria, but more of a 4-4-2 against Hungary. They have good players in the spine of the team, and I am a big admirer of William Carvalho in central midfield. But they are very narrow, whichever formation they use, with the only width from their full-backs.

Croatia, ultimately, have more range and more match-winners. They can beat teams through the middle or beat them out wide, with crosses from Perisic and Srna. That ability to play in different ways gives them an advantage, and that is why I think they will progress through to the quarter-finals. (© Independent News Service)

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