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Mateo Kovacic: The dark horse that could carry Real Madrid’s chariot forward 

5.19K   //    09 Aug 2017, 18:08 IST

International Champions Cup 2017 - Real Madrid v FC Barcelona
Kovacic puts Pique to the floor

It was just a friendly, but a Clasico is never really something you could take lightly. And Barcelona won 3-2, but perhaps for the first time ever, the result really didn’t matter. Someone did, though, someone who took me to the past and brought up a memory I thought I never had.

During the 69th minute of the game, Jesus Vallejo slid in and tackled the ball off Barcelona’s number 6. The ball then went flying away but was gracefully brought under control by this certain someone. He lifted his left leg in the air and caressed the ball down with astute finesse.

It felt as though a peacock was dancing in the rain with its colourful feathers flailing with magnificence. Meanwhile, Sergio Busquets was pressing him from behind and Denis Suarez rushed in to close him down from the front.

So Mateo Kovacic – enough with the suspense – dragged the ball forward with the sole of his boot, showing more of the ball to the onrushing Denis, and then drew it back behind him instantly, which prompted Sergio Busquets to throw his left foot at it.

But by then, it was too late. Kovacic had already heeled it to his left to a team-mate. And then it happened; an image flashed in my mind – it took me back in time.

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Shades of a former Croat international

Mario Stanic, Robert Prosinecki and Slaven Bilic
The Golden generation of Croatia

I wasn’t very aware at that time. In fact, I was only born six years ago. It was the 1998 World Cup. However, I will be honest here, the memories of that World Cup are shrouded by a nebulous fog that taints my mind and I can only recall the moments where the haze loosens up a little – and Kovacic’s skill cleared some of the smog for me.

In one such moment, there is this player – I recall – who is making a mockery out of the opponents. Nah, it can’t be Zidane because he has hair. Blonde. Silky. He seemed like a master at faking moves and making dummies every now and then – especially with the sole of his boot.

Within the slackened miasma of my mind, I was seeing him take an indirect free-kick against a team in yellow. Instead of taking it the first time, he laid it off to the teammate closest to him, who then passed it back to him.

An opponent in yellow was rushing towards him as he lifted his right foot to play a cross. Turns out, it was a dummy as he dragged the ball – with the sole of his right boot – to his left and sent the onrushing opponent to Mars before shooting it goalwards with his left.

And the ball traversed over the goalkeeper and went into the net after a slight deflection from the hands of a defender in yellow. And then he ran off to celebrate, his jersey number was 8 and the white-red check stripes made me guess that it was a Croatia jersey, but I couldn’t visualise the name.

I quickly took out my mobile and googled ‘Croatia 1998 squad’ and found out that the number 8 was none other than the genius named Robert Prosinecki. And now it all made sense.

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The rise of Kovacic

NK Dinamo Zagreb v HNK Cibalia - Croatian Prva HNL
Kovacic at Zagreb

The deft touches, the fakes, the heels, the surging dribbles… Kovacic and Prosinecki have so many things in common, but one would hope that the former turns out to have a better career than the former Real Madrid player, whose career was damned with injuries.

Obviously, there are differences. For one, Prosinecki was more attacking than the 23-year-old, who is more of a box-to-box midfielder in his own mould.

Kovacic was supposed to lead both his former clubs to glory. At Dinamo Zagreb, he and Alen Halilovic made fans dream, but their pairing lasted only a season. One fine day, Kovacic’s agent called him and told him to “pack your bags, you are going to Inter.”

Kovacic was astounded, he couldn’t quite believe that a club of Inter’s stature was interested in him. Nevertheless, he packed up and flew to Italy – and his acts with the Nerazzurri made their fans hope of a bright future with Kovacic as the sun.

However, once again, things didn’t pan out as expected as Inter had to sell in order to comply with the Financial Fair Play rules. The Croat was snapped up by Real Madrid in 2015 and has been with them ever since. He hasn’t been able to forge himself as a starter, but he regarded highly by Zidane and the members of the squad.

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What others say of him

FC Internazionale Milano v Empoli FC - Serie A
Kovacic is rated highly by his peers

Now, this is a guy that has been praised by everyone with whom he has worked. Inter legend, Javier Zanetti, regarded Kovacic as “the most promising” player he saw after Ronaldo Nazario at Inter in his 19-year career.

And then there is Giovanni Trapattoni who thinks that he is “a mixture of Kaka and Clarence Seedorf,” while his Croatia U17 coach hasn’t “seen a youngster with so much talent since the days of Robert Prosine?ki."

Former Croatia international, Zvonimir Boban, was also full of praise for his compatriot.

"He has talents that could make him even better than me, he is an incredibly serious professional for someone his age. Kova?i? is a complete player. He is not a born regista but he is playing there now. He is a complete talent that can still grow — he has incredible potential."

Kovacic has unparalleled talent like Prosinecki did

Indeed, he does. Whenever Kovacic plays, he exudes splendour that awakens an intense aura of emotional impulse which can be sensed by the very core of the being. He was already known for his tight dribbling and crunching passes, but he has become a more complete player at the Bernabeu.

Despite not playing as many games as he did in his previous clubs, being under the tutelage of Zidane has helped him develop his decision-making. One of the problems in his game was taking one-too many touches – something which has been cut down a lot with the Blancos.

While it certainly compromises the flair for which he is known and loved, it does make him a more influential player on the pitch.

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Croatia v Israel - International Friendly
Kovacic is perhaps the most talented Croatian of his era

And the Clasico friendly was a perfect testament. For most of the time, he was playing so deep that he was often the nearest teammate to the defenders, but he also drove forward like a raging bull and churned out a goal and an assist for himself.

With Modric reaching mid-30s, Zidane is most likely to rest his new number 10 a lot more. If that happens, then Mateo Kovacic will get more chances – and that could lead to him having a breakthrough season with the Galacticos.

Kovacic might not have the vision or tempo-keeping abilities of Modric just yet, but he is more of a scoring threat and is more tenacious than his compatriot. In the pre-season friendlies, he was Real Madrid’s best player and the French manager’s insistence on keeping him proves that he has a role to play.

Last season, it was Isco that turned out to be the dark horse that carried Madrid forward with his vehement performances in the crunch-end of the season. This season, it could be Mateo Kovacic. 

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Writing was just a hobby I picked to escape from the stress of A-levels. And now, it is exactly what pays my bills every month. Write for multiple platforms with interest in both football and cricket. Have a tendency to be on the dark side.
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