Croatia hope to cash in on the England 'block'

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The Independent Online

Some players seem to play almost despite themselves, governed by instinct rather than analysis, whether of their own game or their opponents. Garrincha, it is said, was baffled by his Brazil team-mates' celebrations after the 1962 World Cup final; he had thought it was a league. Others are thinkers, constantly watching, absorbing details, looking for ways to improve. Hearing Luka Modric's deconstruction of England, it is fair to say he is at the more reflective end of the spectrum.

The 21-year-old's assessment of Sven Goran Eriksson's side at the World Cup was not so strident as that of his coach, Slaven Bilic, who last week dismissed them as "shit", but it is fair to say the Croatia midfielder was not impressed.

"They've got some really good players, and if you go by their names they're one of the best sides in world football," he said. "But I wasn't excited by them at the World Cup. They didn't play well. It's a long time since they played well in a big competition; it's like there's something there that's blocking them."

The only England player he rated in Germany was Owen Hargreaves, who, of course, is ruled out of Wednesday's fixture with a broken leg. "I'm glad he's not playing," Modric said. "He's a good player with a lot of pace and energy, so he could have made things difficult."

On the opinions flowed. Wayne Rooney's return? "He's one of the best players in the world. He's young and he has a bright future. It would be better for us if he were still suspended."

Peter Crouch's recent goal spree? "He's in great form. Being as tall as he is, he's always going to cause problems for defences, but our defence is probably one of the best in Europe in the air." England's weaknesses? "Maybe the goalkeeper - even the English admit that, I think."

Modric's intelligence has never been in doubt. Although born in Zadar, Croatia, his touch and vision first caught the eye when he was 18, playing across the border in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the Mostar side Zrinjski. Doubts remain about his slight physique - although he has always insisted that "once you've played in Bosnia, you can play anywhere" - but his aggression and reading of the game have compensated for that as he moved to Inter Zapresic and then Dinamo Zagreb, with whom he won the Croatian title last season.

The former national coach Zlatko Kranjcar hailed him as "very talented, with a strong presence and organisational qualities" after handing him his debut in a 3-2 victory over Argentina in a pre-World Cup friendly, but he never quite seemed to fit the coach's robust 3-4-1-2, a system that demanded two defensively accomplished central midfielders to provide a platform for the playmaker, Kranjcar's son Niko, who is now at Portsmouth.

Modric was included in Croatia's World Cup squad, but it is only since Kranjcar's departure that he has become a regular, scoring in the 2-0 win in Italy with which Bilic began his reign. Having been nurtured by Bilic through the Under-21s, that strike seemed to encapsulate his centrality to the new regime. "It wasn't a full-strength Italy side," Modric said, "but it was great to get a goal and it was a fantastic performance from everybody."

Bilic has turned away from the customary Balkan preference for three at the back with wing-backs to adopt a modish 4-3-3, in which Modric operates on the right of the midfield three. He acknowledges, though, that for all the modernity of Bilic's thinking, Croatia's greatest strength is the patriotic feeling that both binds the team with common purpose and generates an atmosphere so intimidating that Croatia have never been beaten at home in a competitive international.

That is a salutary statistic for those eager to draw conclusions from England's relatively simple victories in a friendly at Ipswich and then in Euro 2004.

"Our supporters are the best," Modric said. "The noise they make in the stands means it is almost impossible for us to lose. I know England have beaten us twice recently, but this is a new team. They won't find it easy to get three points in Zagreb."

Indeed, they would make history if they did.

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