IT WAS GOING TO TAKE A SPECIAL 12 MONTHS TO DISLODGE CRISTIANO RONALDO AND LIONEL MESSI FROM BALLON D’OR GLORY. LUKA MODRIC DELIVERED AND THEN SOME, WRITES FEARGAL BRENNAN.
2018 ended as the year in which Real Madrid’s Luka Modric broke the Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi Ballon d’Or dominance, and it’s a measure his impact for club and country that he has gone where many of his peers have failed to. Modric’s win was scrutinised by certain quarters, but he has been a rare example of matching domestic and international form within the same calendar year.
The year began in low-key fashion for
Real Madrid and Modric, following an inconsistent start to the 2017-18 campaign, with Barcelona 13 points clear of their great rivals. Zinedine Zidane made clear his intention to throw his weight behind a Champions League pursuit, confident they would get the points together for a top four finish.
A European focus is certainly not unique at the club, and Zidane’s confidence was backed up by a squad of players that have been there and done it – with Modric at the heart of it. Modric started five of the six knockout games on route to the Final, as Los Blancos saw off the domestic champions of France, Italy and Germany, with Modric answering a variety of questions on the way.
In each game he demonstrated his experience and quality in possession, but also his leadership, a skill which has been vastly understated during his career. Zidane utilised Modric’s versatility in the engine room in these games, as part of a deeplying pivot alongside Casemiro, or in an advanced role to counter-press in away games. Alongside his fellow superstars, Modric had to regularly call on his game management skills to push Madrid on, handing out lessons to some of the best young midfielders on the planet along the way.
The final against Liverpool typified Modric’s role in Madrid’s run, blocking out the intensity and drama of the occasion, to coldly make the critical difference. It was Modric that steadied the midfield after
Liverpool’s high-pressure start, confident in his ability to pick the lock when needed. That duly proved to be the case as the
Reds suffered a death by a thousand cuts, eventually sealing the Croatian’s fourth Champions League title.
Madrid then ended the campaign in the black, sealing a top four finish domestically too. But many of their players headed for the World Cup in Russia only days after the Champions League Final, leaving little time for respite.
This concern over burnout was a dominant theme surrounding Modric in the pretournament build-up. The question was asked: at 32, would he retain the durability for an international competition on the back of a long season at club level?
With 2018 considered the final chance for Croatia’s Golden Generation to make a splash on the world stage, Modric wasn’t the only one scrutinised. There were concerns over Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, too, but the Croatia midfield, marshalled by Modric, proved to be among Coach Zlatko Dalic’s most reliable weapons. Indeed, Modric’s performances verged on superhuman for stamina and mental strength.
Calmness, and a Modric penalty, won the day in their opener against Nigeria, before a masterclass against Argentina. With the exception of Messi, the Croatian camp were confident that they could go toe-to-toe with the two-time winners, and they did just that with the standout performance of the group stages. Croatia pressed Argentina all over the park, with their ability to apply the ruthless touch apparent, as Modric scored and conducting things from midfield. Dalic deployed Modric as hybrid of a No 6 and a No 8, preferring Rakitic in an advanced role, with the Madrid man allowed freedom to dictate, in between his Barca rival and Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic.
In the knockout rounds that Modric switched into almost robot mode, showing an indefatigable desire and steely mentality to drive Croatia on. Despite missing a penalty in extra time against Denmark in the last 16, he refused to hide, and scored in the shootout to see Dalic’s side through. Against Russia it was rinse and repeat, with another marathon tie and another goal in a penalty decider, and Modric’s comments ahead of Croatia’s semi-final with England dismissed claims of Croatian tiredness after an arduous road to the last four.
And he was proved right. Modric’s performance in the semi-final echoed many throughout his storming 2018, punctuated with an innate ability to tip the balance of the game, not be cowed by opposition bluster, and strike the killer blow in a game of immense magnitude.
Croatia came up short in the final against France, but not through lack of effort or guile. It was Modric who was rewarded with the Golden Ball for best player at the World Cup, over any of Les Bleus’ charges, for his inspiration and non-stop desire to push Croatia to untouched heights.
‘Modric’s World Cup performances verged on superhuman for stamina and mental strength’ ABOVE: Luka Modric and his family at the Ballon D'Or ds.
‘Zinedine Zidane utilised Modric’s versatility in the Champions League’
TOP RIGHT: Luka Modric’s Ballon d’Or win was recognition for his form for RealMadrid…TOP LEFT: …and his inspirational displaysas Croatia reached the World Cup FinalBOTTOM: Zinedine Zidane used LukaModric to great effect to win RealMadrid’s third straight ChampionsLeague