Luka Modric (left) is left on the ground. Hassan Ammar

Modric watches on helplessly but dream of ultimate glory lives on

Croatia triumph over Japan but star’s struggles are indication of a side who have reached their peak in the World Cup.

BY THE END, all he could do was watch.

It turned out to be pleasant viewing for Luka Modric.

The Croatia captain was on the touchline, arm in arm with the rest of the substitutes and those like him who had been replaced during the previous 120 minutes, as goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic made himself the hero with three saves in the penalty shootout to break Japan hearts.

Brazil or South Korea now await in the quarter finals, and while Croatia made a habit during the 2018 World Cup of falling behind before grinding out a way to the final, this does not have the feel of a side building towards a similar crescendo.

They have the look of a side who have peaked, and Modric’s struggles emphasised as much.

He endured possibly five of the most mortifying minutes of his recent career at a point when Croatia were at their most vulnerable.

It began like much of his side’s play, with a saunter. The captain left the centre of the pitch and glided over to collect the ball from centre back Josko Gvardiol on the left.

He swivelled, played a pass to Ivan Perisic, received it back first time then hit it instantly with the outside of his boot to Mateo Kovavic. Before he knew it, he got the ball back again.

Modric looked up, surveyed his lack of options going forward, then played another sideways one-two with Perisic.

By this point, the 37-year-old seemed somewhat snookered in the left back position. Daizen Maeda sensed his opportunity and bundled Modric off the ball, trickling out of play for a Japan throw.

Seconds later, after Croatia won the ball back about 25 yards out in a central area, Modric attempted a quick release to his left only for it to be intercepted easily by Ritsu Doan, who had read the Real Madrid star’s intention.

Modric’s saunter turned into a scurry as he tried to redeem himself by pressuring the Japan midfielders, who then proceeded to pop a few passes around him. In the midst of this closing down, the Croatian maestro threw a hand up in acknowledgment of his frustration.

world-cup-2022-japan-croatia Croatia's Luka Modric and Japan's Yuto Nagatomo. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Worse was to follow moments later, down by the right corner flag, when a clever backheel by Hidemasa Morita surprisingly caught him on the hop. A tussle with Maeda ended with Modric on his backside as Japan threatened once again.

Wataru Endo slid a delightful pass through for Daichi Kamada, by which point Modric was back on his feet and bellowing in the penalty area to try and provide cover.

Kamada feinted to shoot with his left, chopped onto his right, and from just outside the right corner of the six-yard box, he teed up a shot.

Modric knew what was coming. Or at least what should have.

He keeled over in anticipation of the net bulging but then sprung back into an upwards stance once the shot was skied.

Japan had Croatia on the ropes and Modric was struggling as much as any of his less gifted teammates as the clock struck 40 minutes. Then, on the stroke of the interval, it got even worse when Maeda reacted first in the box to smash home from close range after Modric failed to close down a short-corner routine quickly enough and allowed Doan to deliver a sharp inswinging cross.

Normally an imperious orchestrator, who remains unruffled by any circumstance, Modric’s struggles were perhaps to be expected given the grind of playing all-but-four minutes of the three group games.

Even still, he remains the talisman.

He is the centre piece of an aging team, with his own unwinnable battle against the passing of time making Croatia fragile if he has an off day.

This was one of them – they are allowed, of course – and it was left to Perisic, another veteran, to send this last-16 tie into extra-time when he directed a stunning header from a Dejan Lovren cross into the bottom corner.

In the process, the Spurs man joined Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Xherdan Shaqiri as the only players to score in the previous three World Cups.

Modric, despite is influence waning, connected well on 63 minutes with a long range shot after the ball had sat up nicely for a looping effort. Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda palmed it over the bar as the contest drifted into extra-time.

Croatia did manage to restore more control as the seconds ticked away, Japan’s energy diminishing allowing Modric to become more prominent. Not in the final third, however, where both sides were lacking that cutting edge.

Modric’s substitution nine minutes into extra-time was the end of his influence on the pitch, but he remained a vocal presence prior to the penalty shootout.

They live to fight another day and Modric’s dream of ultimate glory with his country lives on. Just.

For the latest news coverage on the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, see here >

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