Modric driving Croatia ahead

Luka Modric in a training session at the Roschino Arena, outside St Petersburg, on Friday. The Croatia captain led his team to the top of their group and hopes to fulfil a dream that began when he watched his nation record its best World Cup showing
Luka Modric in a training session at the Roschino Arena, outside St Petersburg, on Friday. The Croatia captain led his team to the top of their group and hopes to fulfil a dream that began when he watched his nation record its best World Cup showing of third place in 1998.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Midfielder wants to emulate his country's 1998 showing, as he leads his side against Denmark

ROUND OF 16

Croatia v Denmark

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NIZHNY NOVGOROD• After scoring one of the goals of the tournament and upstaging Lionel Messi by leading Croatia to the top of their group, Luka Modric hopes to fulfil a dream that began when he watched his nation record its best World Cup showing in 1998.

"It was a huge advert for Croatia, all the world finally knew about us," the 32-year-old midfielder said of that run to a third-place finish.

"I began dreaming about trying to reach that level one day."

Today, he leads Croatia in a last-16 tie they are hot favourites to win against Denmark, whose main threat is another slight and silky midfielder in Christian Eriksen.

Croatia are brimming with confidence after winning Group D with a perfect record, the highlight of which was a 3-0 thumping of Messi's Argentina that included a sublime long-range Modric strike.

Such has been his influence that Croatia defender Dejan Lovren suggested Modric deserved to win the Ballon d'Or.

"He is one of the best in the world right now," Lovren said. "Modric would probably be getting more attention than he is right now if he was a German or Spanish player."

No Croat has ever won the annual award for the world's best player although Davor Suker finished second in 1998, when Croatia lost to hosts France in the semi-finals.

A visionary passer and fleet-footed dribbler, Modric came to global prominence when he joined Tottenham in the Premier League in 2008. He has kept his form with Real Madrid's Champions League-winning sides since signing in 2012.

Unlike some other creative geniuses, he also busts a lung to help defend - a quality that endears him to both fans and coaches.

"He's the engine that makes us go," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said.

"He's also a captain who leads by example. He always gives his maximum, and sets high standards with his attitude, aggression and energy on the pitch."

Fellow Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic has compared Modric to Spain's Andres Iniesta.

"It seems like both of them are from different planets and they came to play football with us mortals," Rakitic said.

"Both of them are among the best players ever in their positions."

Iniesta and Spain could lie in wait in the quarter-finals but, first, Croatia must overcome Denmark in Nizhny Novgorod today.

The Danes are happy to continue flying under the radar despite being on a 17-match unbeaten run.

Having scored just two goals in finishing as Group C runners-up, they expect to open up today.

They, too, are seeking to match their 1998 achievement when they reached the quarter-finals before being beaten by Brazil in what was also their best World Cup showing.

Denmark coach Age Hareide has promised a more entertaining, attacking style against Croatia after their own fans jeered them in a boring 0-0 draw against France.

"We know we don't seem like the most fearsome bunch to go up against," said midfielder Thomas Delaney. "But people shouldn't get used to seeing us play like we did against France. It's seldom that we play like this. The game against Croatia will be a very different spectacle."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 01, 2018, with the headline 'Modric driving Croatia ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe