Modric channels Alonso but left relying on three-goal England win to further his Croatia legacy

Matt Stead
Croatia midfielder Luka Modric reacts to the Italy draw
Luka Modric might have just made his last major international tournament appearance

England are about to let down a whole new section of the global population; Croatia need them to beat Slovenia heavily to keep Luka Modric at the Euros.

 

It seems that Euro 2024 is expanding its horizons. The tournament of specifically either stunning long-range strikes or own goals has developed a couple of different subsections involving catalogued Romelu Lukaku VAR misfortunes and qualification-altering late drama.

Group A was transformed in stoppage-time on Sunday when Germany returned to the summit with an equaliser against Switzerland, before Hungary shattered Scotland after 100 fearful minutes to put themselves in a best-third-place-based driving seat to qualify for the knockout stages.

Italy waited until the final moment to book their spot in a foreboding last-16 tie against Granit Xhaka’s impressive dark horses, leaving Croatia dependent on a few results for any hope of advancing after rather carelessly conceding goals in the 95th and 98th minutes of their last two games.

It seems unlikely that Luka Modric will be cheering on England to an even less plausible victory of at least three goals against Slovenia, with simultaneous wins needed for Denmark, Turkey and Portugal for the 38-year-old to prolong his time at what seems sure to be his last major international tournament.

Modric eventually did his utmost to keep Croatia in control of their own fate. Neither they nor Italy wanted to take the initiative in Leipzig but the onus was thrust upon the Real Madrid midfielder when Davide Frattesi was adjudged to have handled an ostensibly harmless cross. Modric shared the pain of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka when Gianluigi Donnarumma saved his penalty, but channelled the spirit of Xabi Alonso in the 2005 Champions League final – albeit with a slightly inconspicuous 33-second gap during which the only Italian touch was another Donnarumma save from Ante Budimir – by slamming the rebound into the roof of the net.

That made Modric the oldest goalscorer in European Championship history; in a sign of ludicrous longevity, he was born five months before the youngest, Johan Vonlanthen, who retired six years ago.

It was also Croatia’s last shot. The first half of their objective was complete. They need only beat Italy to secure second place and that slender lead was to be defended by any means necessary. Five of their six yellow cards were incurred after, starting with Modric going into the book five minutes after scoring when he clattered into Frattesi in the centre circle.

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Italy created little besides two Alessandro Bastoni headers. Newcastle legend Nicolo Barella was excellent but the best individual performances in blue were of a defensive nature – making centre-half Riccardo Calafiori’s divine intervention all the sweeter.

With time ticking he strolled forward, traded passes with Frattesi and maximised a wonderful advantage, gliding into space before finding substitute Mattia Zaccagni. The Lazio winger had wisely drifted away from any and all attention before applying a finish which would have made 2006 World Cup Alessandro Del Piero blush.

It was the sort of impetus Croatia had been lacking all game, that driving force and scruff-of-the-neck brilliance absent from a team prone to either reaching the latter stages of a major international tournament crashing out at the group stage.

Those 32 seconds between Modric missing his penalty and putting Croatia ahead felt like a lifetime in comparison to the ten-second gap from the cameras showing his touchline agitation, having been taken off, with his shirt clenched between his teeth before the shot cut to the crescendo of Zaccagni’s glorious leveller.

They will not expect a favour from England, nor do Croatia really deserve one. Their complacency against Albania was damaging and too much was left in the hands of the football gods against Italy instead of the feet of a fading deity like Modric.

It did at least provide a stunning entry into the growing genre of obviously crestfallen footballers having to pose post-match with their man of the match award, wearing the look of someone who understandably wants to be literally anywhere else. It is almost certain that Modric will have a sudden influx of free time to make that a reality soon.