New Delhi: In Croatia’s quarter-final clash against Russia on Saturday, the decisive penalty fell to Ivan Rakitic. After 120 minutes of sapping football and a nerve-racking shootout, it was down to the midfielder to settle the tie, and he slotted his spot kick calmly past Igor Akinfeev to take his team to the semi-finals.
He took the final spot kick against Denmark too in the round of 16 clash and delivered. In essence, his has been the final seal in Croatia’s knockout games in Russia so far but that couldn’t be farther from his metronomic midfield presence.
While Luka Modric has deservedly won praise for his creativity in carving up defences, it is Rakitic whose work in midfield has enabled the Real Madrid man to do his thing.
Rakitic’s all-encompassing midfield role was on display in Croatia’s crucial second group game against Argentina. The match was far from over and Croatia were leading 1-0 when in the 63rd minute Lionel Messi found himself with the ball and only the goalkeeper to beat from three yards out, but Rakitic came sliding in to push the ball out of play just when the Argentine captain was shaping up to shoot.
Rakitic, the midfielder, was making a last man tackle.
In the 91st minute of the game, the 30-year-old was on the other end of the pitch scoring from six yards to put the match beyond Argentina. The two moves encapsulated the role Rakitic plays for Croatia: the man who is always at the right place at the right time, in defence and in attack.
Rakitic’s performance in the World Cup, however, is a mere continuation of an outstanding campaign with Barcelona last season, when the midfielder helped the Catalans to a domestic double.
What’s remarkable though is his transformation from an attacking midfielder, with a full repertoire of incisive passes and a knack for scoring goals at a regular clip, into a complete midfielder.
Before Barcelona signed him in the summer of 2014, Rakitic had a tally of 32 goals and 41 assists in 149 games for Sevilla between 2011 and 2014, and before that, 16 strikes and 29 assists in 135 appearances at Schalke between 2007 and 2011. Those numbers convey the story of the kind of player he was.
Rakitic’s evolution at Camp Nou has been nothing short of extraordinary.
In his early days in Catalonia, the Croat was seen as the long-term replacement for Xavi Hernandez who was in his last season at the club. Xavi shared minutes with Rakitic but whenever the latter played it was clear that he wouldn’t exactly be a replica of the legendary Barcelona No. 6. No one could be. Rakitic frequently found himself in attacking third of the pitch rather than dictating the tempo of the game from the middle, which was the hallmark of Xavi’s game.
The following two seasons were hard to draw conclusions from. Barcelona were struggling for identity under Luis Enrique.
But last season Rakitic was the fulcrum of the Barcelona midfield. He covered perfectly for the defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets in his absence, slotting effortlessly between the two centre backs and finding the right passes under pressure.
The experience of playing between the central defenders must have been handy when he slid in to deny Messi in Russia.
And his natural instinct of making forward runs and finding the right passes means that he can be counted upon in attacks as well.
After a crucial win over Atletico Madrid towards the business end of La Liga last season, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde had to say this about Rakitic: “What can I say? He balances us absolutely. He has everything".
The way Rakitic has sacrificed the more adventurous and creative aspects of his game to help both the Croatian and Barcelona midfield achieve the right balance, is quite remarkable.
It is no surprise then that during his stint in Barcelona, Rakitic has featured in 214 of the 240 games the team have played, a tally greater than Busquets and, yes, even Messi.
Croatia have greatly benefited from their skilful midfielder, and Valverde’s assessment of Rakitic is likely to be endorsed by the Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic, who will hope the midfielder continues his act for the remainder of their Russia journey.