Artist Modric and artisan Rakitic lift Croatia's late night show

By Dom Farrell 17 June 2018 391
Artist Modric and artisan Rakitic lift Croatia's late night show

On the 2018 World Cup's longest day, the fan park where it never goes dark felt like the most appropriate place to watch the late kick-off.

St Petersburg's big-screen bonanza resides in a picturesque city-centre location, in the shadow of the beautiful Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Croatia's 2-0 win over Nigeria was not quick to live up to the setting.

Following Iceland's latest precision slingshot to the eye of a footballing Goliath, fans from around the world rubbed shoulders and got into a party atmosphere that reached fever pitch as Peru laid fruitless siege to Denmark and Kasper Schmeichel's goal.

It had been a sun-soaked day spent aboard a giddying carousel of the best the international game had to offer, but Croatia and Nigeria got underway in Kaliningrad looking like two teams who had kicked every ball of the preceding 270 minutes.

It was sleepy fare, with a long wait for anything of note to happen. Plenty were trudging towards the exits and into St Petersburg's famed "White Night" – the phenomenon caused by the city's northerly geographical location that means, between late May and early July, the sun does not descend far enough below the horizon for the sky to go dark.

Those on the way home missed a goal entirely suited to its match. Mario Mandzukic collapsed into a diving header as Nigeria took a relaxed approach to set-piece defending and Oghenekaro Etebo put through his own net.

Yet, even when they are not at full capacity, a fine Croatian generation nearing the end of their collective journey are always worth watching – if only for their esteemed midfield duo.

Clasico rivals in their day jobs, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic were made to play football together.

Modric, all silky, shuffling deftness, is just about the perfect player to enjoy underneath an ornate work of art like St Petersburg's famous church. The Real Madrid maestro sees games in high-definition, with the broadest spectrum of colours. A Nigeria side blundering along in analogue never stood much of a chance.

If Modric is the architect – the man who sees it all and has the grand plan – Rakitic is the man entrusted with slamming the bricks and mortar into place. Every act from the Barcelona star is laced with purpose as he disrupts the opposition and shifts his team on to the front foot.

Andrej Kramaric almost headed home Croatia's second when Rakitic popped up on the left and curled in a delicious "score me" cross.  

Ante Rebic missed terribly on the volley in the 55th minute, Ivan Perisic crossing after Rakitic sliced Nigeria open with a sumptuous throughball – the offside flag sparing the Eintracht Frankfurt forward's blushes.

It is now three defeats out of three for African nations at Russia 2018 and Nigeria's race was run from the moment William Troost-Ekong discovered impromptu wrestling was no better way to defend a corner than the earlier game of statues.

Man of the match Modric stepped up and, taking a rare opportunity to show Lionel Messi how it should be done, stroked the ball into the bottom-left corner with regal calm.

As the action petered out, gazes could return one last time to the imposing cathedral, which is currently besmirched by scaffolding on its tallest ice cream cone tower.

Croatia's take on a golden generation might also creek a little nowadays, but they should find plenty of distance left to run in Russia, with Modric and Rakitic – their artist and artisan – still among the very best around.

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Dom Farrell

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