Not Karim Benzema or Vinicius Jr: Luka Modric is the Real Madrid player that Chelsea should fear the most

Luka Modric Real Madrid 2022-23
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The veteran Croatian has dominated midfields across Europe in recent years, and the Blues will have to lock him down to have any hope of a shock win

Luka Modric spent most of the first leg of Real Madrid's Champions League last-16 tie with Liverpool doing the familiar things. He drifted into pockets of space, found the open man, and occasionally busted out an impossible, trivela pass. All of this happened without the Croatia midfielder really having to break a sweat.

And then, in the 67th minute, he decided to accelerate. Modric nicked the ball off Fabinho's toe, dribbled around the Brazilian, shrugged off 19-year-old Stefan Bajcetic, and slid Vinicius Jr through on goal. Karim Benzema eventually applied the finishing touch to the move, but it began with Modric's one real sprint of the match.

The goal was the fifth of a 5-2 Real Madrid romp at Anfield. Although Benzema grabbed a brace and Vinicius caught the eye, it was Modric's subtle excellence that really dictated things, his scientific management of energy that paced a rampant Madrid side.

It's a performance all too familiar for Madrid's wide selection of defeated foes in the Champions League over the years. Benzema may get on the scoresheet, Vinicius may snatch the ankles, and Thibaut Courtois might make the saves, but it is Modric's magnificence that really lifts this Madrid side on European nights.

As such, he's the man Chelsea must stop if they are to have any chance of causing a shock at Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday.

  1. The unbeaten run

    The unbeaten run

    Quantifying Modric's impact on a football match is difficult. He is far from a prolific goalscorer, and while his six assists this season is nothing to be sniffed at, Modric doesn't always find the killer pass like a classic playmaker.

    But to look at the numbers is to fundamentally misunderstand what Modric is about. Indeed, he is a midfielder that connects and calms those around him. Modric's magnificence isn't in the individual moments — although he could certainly fill a highlight reel — but in the body of work.

    This does not mean that Modric is without career achievements. He is, after all, a Ballon d'Or winner who dragged a Croatia side to the 2018 World Cup final after running 39.1 miles in the tournament. He has three La Liga winner's medals, five Champions League wins and has been in the FIFA World XI six times.

    Still, Modric is best appreciated over 90 minutes. He is often the player that touches the ball most on the pitch, and usually covers the most ground. A trendy heat map will tell you that he can be all over the place, vaguely occupying spaces rather than a recognisable central midfield role.

    He dictates the game, then, by always seeming to be in the right areas, running things by instinct and experience. Against Liverpool, he spent most of the contest as a left-sided central midfielder, but dropped into a defensive role when Eduardo Camavinga pushed up to support Vinicius. And when the game needed breaking open, Modric morphed into a world-class No.10.

    This all amounts to a player who sets the platform for one of Europe's best attacking sides. Benzema, Vinicius and Rodygo can only run riot in the final third because Modric shores everything up behind them. It is far from a coincidence, then, that Madrid are undefeated when Luka Modric starts in this year's Champions League — and haven't lost a knockout tie that the Croatian has featured in since 2021.

  2. The big moments

    The big moments

    The Champions League has become his competition. Over the last three years, Modric's La Liga game time has declined. He made 32 starts in 2021, 25 in 2022, and has 16 so far this year. Meanwhile, his Champions League appearances have held relatively steady — albeit with the odd rest in meaningless group-stage fixtures when Madrid have nothing to play for.

    There have been a number of iconic Modric performances, too. Although Benzema was the man who grabbed the headlines with his hat-trick against PSG last year, Modric did everything in the middle. He nominally played as a No.8, but often dropped back as a No.6.

    And he delivered the decisive moment of the tie: another signature turn of pace, lung-busting run and threaded pass that set up the Frenchman's second. There was defensive work to be done, too. Crunching tackles on Lionel Messi and Neymar in the second half stamped Madrid's authority on the game and quelled notions of a PSG comeback.

    That Madrid were playing without Casemiro didn't really matter. Modric was their defensive midfielder, box-to-box and No.10 rolled into one.

    His most iconic moment, though, came against Wednesday's opponents in last season's quarter-finals. With Madrid staring down the barrel of throwing away a 3-1 first-leg lead at the Bernabeu as Chelsea took a 3-0 lead in Spain, Modric produced an outrageous, outside-of-the-foot cross to find Rodrygo, who applied the finish and took the tie to extra-time before Benzema secured the aggregate victory.

    Those showings certainly fit the mould when it comes to Modric showing up on the biggest stage, with his displays having been major contributors to Madrid winning four of the last seven Champions Leagues.

    Modric bossed the 2017 final, assisting the third goal and leading a furious second half as Los Blancos battered Juventus 4-1. He was even better in the final the year before, alleviating pressure from a notoriously feisty Atletico Madrid midfield as Real won on penalties.

  3. Ancelotti's perfect player
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    Ancelotti's perfect player

    Last month, Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos joked, perhaps through gritted teeth, that he was disappointed that Modric still plays football.

    "I've been hearing for three or four years that Luka and Toni [Kroos] are finished. And each year they get better. You have to be patient and wait for your moment," Ceballos admitted.

    His quip, said with more than a touch of jealousy, encapsulated the staying power of the 37-year-old Croatian. But it is not only Modric himself that can be credited for his longevity.

    Indeed, while Modric's ability to evolve, conserve his energy, and pick his moments to attack has helped, Carlo Ancelotti deserves plaudits, too.

    He is, in effect, the perfect Ancelotti player. That the manager operates entirely off raised eyebrows and vibes is a misconception. But his Real Madrid side has been so effective due to the intelligence of its players — and the manager's reluctance to make specific demands of his midfielders. Modric is at the centre of that, and thrives when removed from tactical confinement.

    Asking Modric to play, for example, as a right-sided attacking midfielder with specific instructions would be acceptable; he would probably do a fine job in the role. But it would also limit what Modric is so good at.

    Accordingly, Ancelotti has allowed Modric the space to work, giving him freedom to roam and dictate play while trusting that his natural instincts will lift the side around him. And so far, it has worked wonders.

    It is easy to see, then, why Ancelotti has insisted that he wants the ageing midfielder to stay for at least another year, with his contract currently set to expire this summer.

  4. Chelsea... again

    Chelsea... again

    Chelsea fans will remember what Benzema did to them last year. The French striker kicked-off his Ballon d'Or campaign in earnest at Stamford Bridge with a magnificent display, burying two in four minutes early in the contest, and adding a third after the break to seal the 3-1 first-leg win.

    But Modric was behind it all. He assisted Benzema's second with an inch-perfect cross, and kept N'Golo Kante — then in electric form — relatively quiet. That he then produced that cross for Rodrygo in the return leg was the icing on the cake.

    And it might look the same this year. Chelsea will undoubtedly fear Benzema, who's scored two hat-tricks in his last three games and showed off his signature Champions League magic against Liverpool in the last 16. They will also be wary of Vinicius, whose pace and lightning feet will surely give Reece James a headache.

    But perhaps more than anything, they will have to stop Modric, whose mastery of central midfield could yet lift Madrid to yet another Champions League win.