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'Extraordinary' Modric still pulling the strings as Real Madrid take decisive step towards La Liga title

11:00 EAT 13/12/2021
Luka Modric Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid La Liga 2021-22
Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio scored the goals in a professional 2-0 derby win against Atletico, but it was the Croatian veteran who dominated

One of the cruellest aspects of the pandemic’s impact on football was fans not getting to cheer on their heroes in person, particularly those reaching the end of their careers.

Luckily for Real Madrid fans, even though Luka Modric is 36, an age where most players are hanging up their boots, he is showing no signs of slowing down - and neither are Los Blancos.

The Croatian midfield maestro was given a standing ovation when he came off near the end of Real Madrid’s 2-0 derby win over Atletico Madrid on Sunday at Santiago Bernabeu. 

His work rate, quality on the ball and touches of class continue to keep Madrid supporters in his thrall. His coach Carlo Ancelotti gave him a joyful embrace at the end of the game.

“Modric, Modric, Modric,” said Ancelotti, when asked what he liked about the game. “Modric is extraordinary, what else can I say? I hugged him and congratulated him because his game was extraordinary.”

It was Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio who scored the goals, and Vinicius Junior who set them both up, but Modric pulled the strings and helped Madrid move 13 points ahead of their city rivals, and a remarkable 18 above Barcelona.

The victory, clinically and professionally achieved, put them eight points clear of second-placed Sevilla at the top of La Liga, and they will take some catching now. Even though we’re not at the halfway stage of the season, the title race looks all but over in Spain, barring a self-inflicted Madrid collapse.

That does not look like happening, with Los Blancos having won 10 games on the trot as they go from strength to strength. They have already beaten the seven teams directly below them, including Barca in eighth.

Modric has been supreme despite his age, while midfield team-mates Toni Kroos and Casemiro remain his perfect allies. Spare a thought for Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga, two hugely promising midfielders but both unable to depose the incumbent trio, who have won it all but refuse to step aside.

Up front, Vinicius and Benzema are forming an unrivalled attacking partnership in Spain, while perhaps most impressively, the defence has gained stability.

After captain Sergio Ramos and stalwart Raphael Varane left, Madrid looked weak at the back. However David Alaba has stepped into Ramos’ shoes - and his No.4 shirt - perfectly well, leading the team on the pitch and also attacking just as effectively as his predecessor.

Eder Militao has also taken a step forward and is a good foil for Alaba.

Behind them, Thibaut Courtois is in the form of his Madrid career. The Belgium international has never enjoyed himself more since moving from Chelsea in 2018.

He was invincible at the Bernabeu on Sunday, notably repelling efforts from Antoine Griezmann and Joao Felix.

That solidity, which neither Atletico Madrid nor Barcelona are close to achieving yet, means Madrid are firm favourites to wrestle the league back from Diego Simeone’s Rojiblancos.

They defending champions started the first half better than Madrid, but Benzema’s volley put the hosts ahead. The second half saw the story repeated, with Felix threatening multiple times before Asensio netted the second, against the run of play.

Ancelotti’s Madrid know how to soak up pressure and strike lethally on the counter. They did it in the Clasico against Barcelona, with Alaba scoring a fine breakaway goal, and again against Atletico.

“They are playing very convincingly,” admitted Simeone. “It’s football that I like, with a low block and pace up front. They are having a very good season.”

“Stay, Cholo,” chanted Madrid fans sarcastically, aware of how superior their team has been to their rivals this season. Simeone’s Atletico are unsettled, unsure of themselves, lacking the intensity they usually ooze. Madrid, by contrast, are sure-footed, experienced and able to measure and control matches. 

Modric is crucial to that, and, in the first Madrid derby with fans for close to two years, he put on a show for them.

“Pfffff,” said Vinicius, grinning after hearing his team-mate’s name. “Modric is incredible. It’s like he’s 22. There’s no doubt he was the best.”