Niko Kranjcar: It’s tense – but Croatia could go to Brazil!

The midfielder, who’s delighted to be back in Britain at QPR, tells Jack Pitt-Brooke why his Croatia team must beat Iceland in World Cup play-off tonight

Many footballers are loved by their own fans, but there are some players – such as Dimitar Berbatov or David Silva – who are so artful and watchable that they are popular with anyone who enjoys the game.

It does not take a particular allegiance to Croatia – who play Iceland in Tuesday's World Cup playoff second-leg in Zagreb – or to Queen’s Park Rangers, to warm to hearing that Niko Kranjcar is starting to rediscover his form. His loan move to Rangers from Dynamo Kiev in September might have surprised some but, as the 29-year-old midfielder explains, he needs to be content to play his best. He was not in Ukraine but in London he is, and the results are starting to show.

“There is definitely a feeling that I did not have for a long time before coming back here, and when you are happy it shows in your football,” Kranj¬car says, before demonstrating that the most gifted players see the game in such a way that they can describe it better than anyone else.

“You feel the ball differently. It listens to you the way you want it to listen. And you don’t want it to go away.”

Even in his brief QPR career, it looks as if the ball is listening to Kranjcar again. In his home debut against Middlesbrough he had, by his own admission, a “great game”, and then at The Den – not obviously a place he would be very comfortable – he scored a beautiful goal from 20 yards out.

If this move still feels like a surprising one for Kranjcar, it is not unprecedented. Twelve years ago another Croatian midfield genius signed for a team in the second tier, when Robert Prosinecki joined Ports¬mouth and was soon joined by Kranjcar’s manager at QPR, Harry Redknapp. Five years later Kranjcar signed for Portsmouth too.

“[Prosinecki] is my footballing hero, my footballing idol,” Kranjcar says with obvious enthusiasm, “so obviously I know everything. We have a close relationship. He enjoyed it. It was a new challenge for him, something different. Although it was towards the end of his career, he still produced magic. But he did, in my mind, for all of his career. For me, the greatest footballer from Croatia. He was unfortunate with injury, probably that is why he isn’t or wasn’t recognised as players like [Zvonimir] Boban or [Davor] Suker. But he was in my eyes the most gifted.”

Promotion out of the second tier – which Prosinecki did not manage - is important to Kranjcar but his immediate priority is elsewhere. After a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Reykjavik on Friday, a win over Iceland will take Croatia to next year’s World Cup.

It has not been an easy few months for Kranjcar’s national team, with Igor Stimac dismissed as coach after they took one point from their last four qualifiers. But the first game of Niko Kovac’s tenure suggested that he might have the effect that - when we spoke before the first leg – Kranjcar had hoped Kovac would have.

“I played with him. He was always a leader, on and off the pitch,” Kranjcar said of the linchpin and organiser of the Croatia teams from the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008.   “He was born and brought up in Germany, so he will bring that side to the table that is very different to our mentality in Croatia, we are much more open and more free.

“The discipline might do us some good. Especially on the pitch, where we have had prob¬lems in the last three or four games, we haven’t played good football. We were not playing as a team, as a unit. There were segments who didn’t feel as a team out there.”

“If we can’t go through those two games we don’t deserve to go to Brazil. And if they want it more than us, we have big problems in our heads.”

Focus should not be a problem now. Kranjcar’s mindset and his football are linked, and he is pleased to be at Rangers but also grateful. “I am happy to be back. I keep being questioned why I came back to the Champ¬ionship, but I really needed it, for myself and my football. It is always great to play, and when things are going well, even more so.”

Of course the Championship is a surprising place for Kranjcar to be playing, as he admits. Not many players with Champions League and World Cup experience and class have turned out at Huish Park or Turf Moor recently. Kranjcar has but insists that the natural level of his team-mates – more suited to the top flight – makes him feel more at ease.

“It is a very competitive league, obviously and physically. The main difference is the ability at the technical point of the game. But then again I play in a team that is full of top players, footballers, most of them have played for years and years in the Premier League, so I don’t really feel it. I believe we are a Premier League team, and I believe we are going to go up.

“I don’t feel like I am playing in the Championship – I know I am – but I do feel that I am in a team of Premier League footballer¬s.”

Kranjcar is far more comfortable here than he was in Ukraine. His 15 months in Kiev were not very happy as he struggled with injuries, not helped by a team in transition and a stop-start calendar, which included a three-month winter break. With the known rhythms of the English game, Kranjcar is more at home, although he did joke that, given a choice, he would rather have two weeks off for Christmas.

“After Kiev, this is more relaxed and trustworthy, the relationship between the manager and the players, you don’t go to hotels the days before game, you don’t go to camp for days and days, you get your days off as well after working hard in training.”

The change in ground, Kranjcar says, has helped too. The Olympic Stadium, rebuilt for Euro 2012, is a giant, deep bowl; Dynamo Kiev barely ever scrape the sides of its 70,000 capacity. Loftus Road will not host a European Championship final any time soon, but with its tight angles and steep sides it is almost the precise opposite of what he has left.

While Kranjcar says the Olympic Stadium is a “phenomenal” venue, he knows which one he prefers. “Loftus Road feels warmer. Obviously, in Kiev it is too big a stadium to even come close to filling it. If you have, say, 30,000 people, it feels really empty.”

As it happens, Loftus Road was important to Kranjcar long before he joined QPR. Back in November 2002, when Fulham were temporary residents, he became Dynamo Zagreb’s youngest ever captain there in a Uefa Cup game. Eleven years on, he is back where it all began.

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