World Cup 2014: Classy Ivan Rakitic ready to reward Croatia gamble against Cameroon

Barcelona-bound midfielder can help Modric outplay Cameroon in Manaus today

There was an easy and obvious option for Niko Kovac, the Croatia coach, as he picked his team to open the World Cup against Brazil in Sao Paulo last Thursday.

Whether to protect his best player, Luka Modric, or to shackle Brazil’s best, Neymar, Kovac could have very legitimately fielded a destructive holding midfielder. Ognjen Vukojevic of Dynamo Kiev, not a man in any mood to compromise with the opposition, would have been perfect.

But Kovac did not follow that course. He partnered Modric instead with Ivan Rakitic, who many thought might have been too similar to the little Real Madrid playmaker to be positioned alongside him centrally. As a sign of attacking courage, and commitment to passing football, it was an impressive statement. Croatia did not win the game – they were unfortunate to be beaten  3-1 – but impressed with their ambition, their control and their incision on the break.

It should not be much of a surprise that Modric and Rakitic work so well together, given their pedigree at club level. Real Madrid have chosen to build their midfield around Modric, with the reward of their long-awaited 10th European Cup last month. Barcelona confirmed this week they will try to do the closest thing possible to their old rivals, but by buying Rakitic instead.

 

The 26-year-old joins a Barcelona side desperately needing more inspiration in midfield. Xavi, now 34 years old, is not the player he once was and Cesc Fabregas, who never quite fitted in on his return to the Nou Camp as he should have done, has been sold to Chelsea. So Rakitic comes with the burden of re-energising one of the world’s leading teams, of re-starting the engine that feeds Lionel Messi and Neymar.

It is a heavy responsibility but he has always shown a cool head under pressure. Rakitic grew up on the Swiss-German border – the son of Croatian immigrants, who watched Croatia’s great run to the semi-finals at France ’98 with him – and turned down a move to Chelsea as a teenager to stay with Basel. From there he moved to Schalke and from there to Seville, where he excelled and helped win the Europa League last month.

Had Kovac not picked Rakitic, it would have deprived Croatia of a player who would be the most creative, watchable midfielder in almost any other side in the competition. Rakitic is slightly more direct and incisive than Modric, who is more of a controller. The two, in theory, combine to make a platform for the next great young Croatian playmaker, Mateo Kovacic, of Internazionale. Kovacic struggled to get into the game against Brazil on Thursday night but should have a better chance of doing so against Cameroon in Manaus tonight.

Croatia must be aiming for second place in Group A, and Cameroon were so poor in their opening 1-0 defeat to Mexico in Natal that tonight is a good chance for three points for Kovac’s side. Ahead of Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic will be the returning Mario Mandzukic, back from suspension and ready to cause some mischief up front. He is an impressive striker, but will relish the supply coming from behind him.

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