Maestro Modric holds key to unlocking Atletico
By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Real Madrid will rely on Luka Modric to pull the strings in the middle of the pitch on Saturday to try to engineer a first league win over local rivals Atletico Madrid since 2013.
With anchor Casemiro and pass master Toni Kroos injured, Croatian Modric is sure to be a key figure after returning from knee surgery a raucous reception from Real supporters when he came off the bench in the 3-0 win over Leganes on two weeks ago.
With usual talisman Cristiano Ronaldo enduring a slow start to the season, Modric has taken on even greater importance for Real, his status within the club reflected with the award of a new contract until 2020.
Although he originally struggled after joining Real from Tottenham Hotspur for an estimated 30 million euros ($32 million) in 2012 and was voted the worst signing of the year by Spanish daily Marca that year, the diminutive Croatian now enjoys a status at the club comparable to Ronaldo's.
Atletico captain Gabi singled out Modric, and not the prolific Portuguese forward, as Real's danger man.
"With the return of Modric they recover their best player, the man who gives them balance and really makes them play," said the midfielder.
"It's a huge boost for them, and we'll have to try and cope with him and counteract him."
Atletico know all about the damage Modric can cause, for it was the Croatian's cross from a corner which led to Sergio Ramos heading in the 93rd-minute equaliser in the 2014 Champions League final, paving the way for Real's 4-1 win in extra-time.
Even Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest players of all time, has admitted to being awe struck when watching Modric grace the field.
"The things he does with the outside of his foot, those passes amaze me," said the Real coach.
"He can do all the things that a central midfielder has to be able to do," said former Real boss Carlo Ancelotti.
"But perhaps the most important thing is penetration with the ball. He has that pass that opens up the opposition."
Even though they have developed into a more attractive team and become more open this season, piercing Atletico's back line remains a challenging task, with Diego Simeone's side conceding only nine goals in 15 games in all competitions.
Yet even without his usual midfield escorts by his side, Real are well aware Modric holds the key to unlocking Atletico and ending their three-year derby drought.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)