Croatia’s Albania failure shows this is a tournament too far for imperious Modric

Harry De Cosemo

Croatian maestro Luka Modric had the ball in space in the middle of the Volksparkstadion pitch. It should have been a moment for Albania to fear and retreat, but they stepped forward and intercepted Modric’s rather feeble through ball attempt. Seconds later, Kristjan Asllani was in on goal, only to be denied by Dominik Livakovic.

It was a moment that summed up not only the pattern of the first half, but Modric and Croatia’s struggles to control Albania. Alongside Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, possession was always likely to come easily, but not only did Croatia struggle to muster inspiration after going a goal behind, but they failed to stop a string of good chances being created from similar avenues before half time.

Ultimately, that lack of control cost them in the end, conceding a late equaliser after taking a 2-1 lead in the second half. Now it looks like a tall order to qualify; they need to beat Italy, but on this showing and that against Spain, they do not have the energy.

Through long balls over the top or central through balls, Albania should have been out of sight; Qazim Laci opened the scoring with a header on 11 minutes, Asllani failed to double the lead before Rey Manej’s header was thwarted by another Livakovic save.

Everything was coming through the same structure for Sylvinho’s side, who had clearly learnt a lot from their opening defeat to Italy.

They countered using their pace and power to overwhelm Croatia and Modric in particular. What has looked effortless and second nature for 15 years – control, dictation, tempo setting – suddenly looked a challenge for the Real Madrid man. Albania were supposed to be the whipping boys of the group of death which involves Spain and Italy too. If they were too much for Croatia, who wouldn’t be?

Modric is now 38, Ivan Perisic is 35; they have defied logic and sense in the last three tournaments, but this one has, unfortunately, just not been the same. Kovacic and Brosovic, the other remaining members of an incredible generation of Croatian midfielders, battled to regain control in a second half which showed Croatia did carry more of a threat.

Andreij Kramaric, who turns 33 today, levelled and Klaus Gjasula’s unfortunate own goal appeared to have completed the turnaround. But then Gjasula struck in stoppage time and it was hard to avoid the feeling that it may be a tournament too far for Croatia and Modric.

Losing to Spain without laying a glove on them was a warning sign. Croatia may be about to go home early and there will need to be a lot of planning of how to take this team forward. Time comes for everyone, but Modric has been the beating heart of this team for so long. If they are indeed knocked out, it may take a while to recover and go again.

Eventually, we can look back and marvel at the sheer relentlessness of Luka Modric’s quality. Football looked very different at the elite level before he arrived, and it’ll be a worse place when he’s gone. But that time is fast approaching.