World Cup 2018: England must stop world’s best midfielder to reach final

For England to beat Croatia and reach the World Cup final, they must stop the best midfielder in the world.

This is the way to rate Former Tottenham team-mate Luka Modric. I’ve not met many players as driven as Luka, and I’ve seen even fewer who are as talented as him.

I remember the first time I saw him play, when he was part of the Croatia team that beat England 2-0 in Zagreb in a European Championship qualifier in 2006.

I was on the bench that night and he was absolutely phenomenal. I had heard Spurs were interested in him and I was thinking to myself, ‘please tell me we are signing this kid because he is unreal’.

When he joined Tottenham in 2008 at the age of 22, we became close friends and even then he was already becoming the leader he is now as captain of his country.

That is one of the qualities he has that many people might not expect and, as a player, he always had a few surprises up his sleeve too.

‘His mindset is win, win, win’

The things that make Modric such a threat to England on Wednesday are not just his vision, the fact he is a two-footed player, or his low centre of gravity and balance.

Yes, the way he uses his body when he is on the ball plays a big part in making him the fantastic footballer he is, but so does his personality.

Luka has always demanded a lot from his team-mates and there were times in games when he would be the one rallying the troops, even in his early years at Tottenham.

Some creative players can just drift out of games if they are not going their way, but not Luka. He is passionate about his football and he had a little aggressive streak in him that I quite liked actually.

He would get angry and always let you know if he wasn’t happy if, say, you did not give him the ball or if things were not going the way he wanted them to.

Off the pitch, he would let loose when we were out together but when it came down to business, he was right on it.

In training he was exactly the same as he was in games – intense and relaxed at the same time.

He was forever complaining about refereeing decisions and arguing with his team-mates, but also urging us on and celebrating any kind of victory.

Whether it was a two-touch game, a possession-based drill, five-a-side or eight-a-side, he loved winning. His mindset is win, win, win.

‘The tighter the situation, the better he is’

When Luka came to Tottenham he was a number 10, but he could play deeper than that, and on the left or right too.

He was just as effective in any role – because he has got defensive discipline to his game and never shirks a challenge – but what he really wants to do is get on the ball and take responsibility.

I loved playing in midfield with Luka at Spurs and one of the things that stood out for me was how clever he was in tight situations in midfield.

In fact, the tighter the situation got, the better he became.

Luka has never conformed to the norm when it comes to the usual positions a central midfielder would take up to receive the ball from their defenders.

For a start, he was always happy to receive the ball anywhere – whereas most midfielders have favourite areas to drop into.

I categorically remember certain times in training where I asked the coaches if I could go on the opposing team to him because I needed to work him out – he was just too good.

He would go into areas just in front of the full-backs where, if I was playing against him, I would think, ‘I am going to go out there and mark you’.

But he would get the ball and all of a sudden he would be at you and past you. Every time I thought I had him pinned down, he just got away from me. I’ve seen him do the same thing time and time again at this World Cup.

So it is going to be hard for England to shut him down on Wednesday because he is quicker than most people think, and a lot stronger too. For a player who is only 5ft 6in, he has got the biggest calves I have ever seen in my life.

Why doesn’t Modric get wider accolades?

It is six years since Modric left White Hart Lane to join Real Madrid – and since then he has got even better.

Watching him play, he is obviously a guy who can run a game and make things happen in midfield, with the ability to know exactly what is going on around him.

When you consider how well balanced he is, I just don’t see a better player in that area of the pitch anywhere on the planet right now.

Bearing in mind he has won the Champions League four times with Real, I don’t think he always gets the wider accolades he deserves.

That is probably because he does not get more goals. He has got two at this World Cup, but throughout his career he has never scored in big numbers, and that is something some people use to judge how good a player is.

I think differently. Like his Real Madrid team-mate Toni Kroos, Spain’s Andres Iniesta or another Croat, Ivan Rakitic, Luka is a rhythm-type player who sets the tempo of games and gives his team control of them.

Croatia’s greatest player, carrying his country’s hopes

There is quality right through this Croatia team, especially in midfield which with Modric, Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic – you could argue is the best in the tournament.

Then you add in those who have played in Champions League finals, such as Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic and Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren, and you can see why they have been doing so well.

They have flirted with success at previous tournaments but the difference now is this team are expected to do something and it is Luka who is spearheading that.

The pressure is not a problem for him, though. Even in his younger days, in Croatia, he was like a god over there – he was seen as the next star to follow the likes of Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki.

Now he is probably looked upon as the greatest Croatia player, which is some statement, and he is carrying the country’s hopes.

Handling that sort of pressure is never going to faze him, and he showed how strong he is mentally in his side’s last-16 win over Denmark.

He missed a penalty late in extra time but still stepped up and scored in the shootout.

That did not surprise me one bit. I knew for a fact he would take one because he is just not the type of player to shy away from responsibility.

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