They say you should never piss off the great ones.
It’s just not worth it. The athletes that will go down in history possess a mental fortitude that helped drive them to the very top, often against all the odds. Trying to play mind games with them is regularly just a waste of time.
With that in mind there had to be some Scotland fans who rolled their eyes a bit when they saw Pat Nevin’s comments last week. In case you missed it Nevin suggested he would rather have John McGinn in his team than the Croatian captain, saying that he was past his best.
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That captain is of course a certain Luka Modric. He then proceeded to put in one of the best performances of his recent career as Croatia beat Scotland 3-1 on Tuesday evening, and booked their place in the Last 16 of Euro 2020. Modric scored the second, more on that later, and set up the third, decisive goal with a perfect corner. In general he ran the show.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JUNE 22: Luka Modric of Croatia celebrates with Zlatko Dalic, Head Coach of Croatia as they are filmed by TV camera operators after victory in the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group D match between Croatia and Scotland at Hampden Park o

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From the off Modric looked like a man on a mission. He had heard the noise, he had heard the pundits saying that Croatia are past their sell-by date, and he took that personally. Modric was everywhere, he was picking up loose balls in the middle of the park, he was releasing the forwards in behind the Scottish defence and he popped up with what might be the goal of the tournament with a gorgeous outside foot of the strike. Bruno Petkovic’s touch down from a long ball was great, Mateo Kovacic rolled the ball back to the edge of the area and then Modric struck the ball perfectly, arrowing it into the net with a wonderful trajectory.
It’s worth putting this into context. Modric will be 36 in September. The game against Scotland is his 62nd of the season. A season that came after a shortened off-season. Real Madrid have one of the best defensive midfielders in the world in Casemiro, and one of the most promising young midfielders in the world in Federico Valverde but do you know how many players played more games for the team this season? One. And that was goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. His longevity is remarkable.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JUNE 22: Luka Modric of Croatia scores their side's second goal past David Marshall of Scotland during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group D match between Croatia and Scotland at Hampden Park on June 22, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland.

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It’s also worth taking a moment to praise Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic. He stuck with the 4-2-3-1 that helped against the Czech Republic but he sacrificed one of his attackers to shift Modric further forward, with Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic behind him. It worked perfectly, the Scottish midfielders struggled to cope with his intelligent movement, drifting into space, picking the ball up and moving it on quickly. So far at Euro 2020 only Daley Blind and David Alaba have completed more passes than Modric.
For what it’s worth it, McGinn was brilliant. He was at the heart of everything good Scotland did and he was a real driving force. However if there is one takeaway from the game it is the difference between top-class and world-class. McGinn is the in the former category, he is one of the better midfielders in the Premier League, but he is not at Modric’s level, at least not yet.
A word too for Ivan Perisic, Modric’s capable lieutenant. He is another who was written off but like Modric is slowly getting better as the tournament improves, and like his team-mate he got a goal and assist. He is one of those players that just seems to have a knack for goalscoring, he’s always had that and it comes out even more at international level.
After the opening two matches Croatia seemed dead in the water, poised to be put alongside Turkey and Spain in a “Euro 2020 most disappointing teams article” after the group stage. All of a sudden they have finished second in the group and are starting to look like the team that reached the final in 2018.

Croatia's forward Ivan Perisic (L) celebrates with Croatia's midfielder Luka Modric after scoring the third goal during the UEFA EURO 2020 Group D football match between Croatia and Scotland at Hampden Park in Glasgow on June 22, 2021

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Are they going to repeat that achievement? Almost certainly not, they’re in the side of the draw now with Belgium, Italy and the winner of the Group of Death. If things go against them they could even face Spain in the next round, although it’s hard to know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing at the moment.
If Modric is playing as he is now then Croatia aren’t going to fear anyone. They will feel disappointed with the way they handled themselves against England, particularly giving the generally stagnant performances of Gareth Southgate’s team so far, but it’s about finishing strong not starting strong. Sure, Modric probably would have wanted to get one over on England given his comments on the arrogance of the press and supporters, as well as saying that there was an unfair advantage with so many games at Wembley, but if you offered him second place in the group before the start of the tournament he would definitely have taken it.
It’s remarkable how much one game and a few subtle tweaks can change things, just look at Germany. With Nikola Vlasic, the scorer of the opening goal, now in the starting line-up Croatia are more dynamic, and whilst Petkovic won’t ever be an elite striker, he is brilliant at bringing others into play and that’s just what Croatia need. Vlasic was right up there with Modric in terms of performance and it's not understating it to say that he has changed the way this Croatian team are playing.
Sometimes we can be too quick to write off the great ones, and Modric has had his fair share of writing off during his career. The hallmark of a legend is that they always make you eat your words, and Modric is still doing that as well as anybody.
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