Luka Modric: Real Madrid midfielder outshining the rest
Last updated on .From the section European Football
If you were to survey followers of Spanish football on their player of the season so far, there is a good chance they would vote overwhelmingly in favour of one name.
Not Ronaldo, Messi, Bale or Neymar but Luka Modric.
Pose the same question 12 months previously and Modric would not even be in with a whisper.
Recruited by Real Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur for £33m in August 2012, the Croatia midfielder was in danger of being harshly written off as a high-profile, big-money flop.
Appearances were irregular under Jose Mourinho and some Real fans wanted him sold, with readers of the newspaper Marca voting Modric the worst signing of the year.
Fast forward to the present day and he is indispensable to Carlo Ancelotti, the hard-to-please Bernabeu crowd are chanting his name - they want Modric to wear the prestigious number 10 shirt instead of 19 - and the queue of suitors is growing. They could be waiting a long time.
Many, including former Real sporting director Predrag Mijatovic, believe the 28-year-old is now on a par with Cristiano Ronaldo as the club's most important player.
"I never considered leaving Real Madrid or that it was a mistake to come here," Modric, with a look of unbreakable self-belief, tells BBC Sport. "It was my dream come true when I signed for Real Madrid. I want to stay here for as many years as possible and, if it's possible, finish my career here.
"I really enjoy my life in Spain. Madrid is a big and beautiful city with great parks where I like to walk. There are a lot of squares and museums, historic monuments. But I'm more a home guy, I feel most comfortable there with my wife and kids. We play, watch cartoons, like all families do."
Modric has never been one to court publicity - "I don't like to speak much, I rather speak on the field; apart from Real Madrid TV this is my first big interview" - but when we meet at the club's Valdebebas training complex he could hardly be more relaxed and welcoming.
His ripped jeans, shaggy hair and cheeky smile reflect a laid-back, unpretentious, likeable character who is quiet yet bubbly, private yet warm; a gentle Galactico with a kind, conscientious, intelligent personality that endears him to family, friends and the public alike.
But underneath lies an unmistakeable sense of grit and determination, a fierce desire to confound and triumph, all of which stems from a life of hurdles and challenges.
Modric was aged just six when his family were forced to flee their home in war-torn Croatia in 1991, moving into an army-owned hotel in the coastal city of Zadar. His father joined the military and his grandfather was killed. Money and food were in short supply.
With grenades falling on the local football pitches, Modric honed his skills in the hotel parking lot and there began his journey to the top, starting at NK Zadar and moving on to Dinamo Zagreb via loan spells with Zrinjski Mostar in Bosnia and Inter Zapresic back in Croatia.
His progress at Dinamo preceded a £16.5m transfer to Tottenham in 2008, although injuries and questions about his physical stature had to be overcome before he really began to shine.
"I have great memories of Tottenham," he says. "I spent four great years there with a lot of emotions, with a lot of love from the club and the fans. I enjoyed every moment with Tottenham. But in one moment you feel you need to take a step forward, to go to a higher level.
"I think it was the right time for me to go, but I will always be thankful to Tottenham for everything they did for me. I became a better player there and they pushed me to this level where I am at the moment. I will always be a fan, I follow them a lot when I can."
Modric politely asks if we can avoid discussing memories of his youth, but the emotion is still evident when he explains what it means to represent Real Madrid.
"I think 'unique' is the best word to describe your feelings to play for such a special club," he says. "From the first moment I arrived here - my presentation walking into the trophy hall at the Bernabeu and seeing trophies and pictures of the legends of Real Madrid, it showed me where I've come.
"I feel so proud of where I've come. All I dreamed of when I became a footballer was to play for a club as big as Real Madrid. It's maybe the most famous and best club in the history of football."
Not a bad move, then, for a 5ft 9ins midfielder who it was claimed during his time in the Premier League might be too "lightweight" to become one of the very best.
"People like to judge and make their own conclusions," Modric says. "I never cared what other people were saying about me - I had my aims, I believed in myself and never stopped. I've been through many difficulties in my life, but all these things made me a stronger and better person.
"All these critics push you forward to show people they are wrong. Maybe I look lightweight but I am a really strong person mentally and physically, and I never had any problems with my size."
This is a point illustrated by the fact Modric has made more tackles (56) than any other Real Madrid player in La Liga this season and his average number of tackles per league game (2.86) is currently higher than he recorded at the end of any campaign since leaving Dinamo.
And it is not only his tackling that has improved; since Ancelotti succeeded Mourinho as head coach last summer, Modric has developed a formidable central midfield partnership with Xabi Alonso and Angel di Maria, statistically improving virtually every facet of his game in the process.
Most notable is his passing, with the 878 Modric has completed in the opposition half of the pitch in La Liga easily the highest of any Real player (Di Maria is next with 650).
His passing accuracy in the league (90%) is the highest it has been since leaving Dinamo and the highest of any midfielder in Europe's top five leagues who have five or more assists this season. Modric's six assists already equals his highest for a league campaign since leaving Dinamo.
"I had some difficulties at the beginning," he admits. "I didn't have a complete pre-season - I trained on my own in London, I came later here and you need time for everything to get settled.
"That [Marca survey] didn't affect me at all. I knew sooner or later I would show my quality and show to everyone why I'm here, why Real made such an effort to bring me here.
"I had a lot of support from the ex-coach [Mourinho] - he did everything to bring me here and I'm grateful for that. At the beginning he was very helpful to ease my adaptation. By the time I was fit enough I started playing better and better. His tactics were never a problem for me."
If one moment of Modric's Real Madrid career to date resonates above all others, it must be his display after coming off the bench at Manchester United in the Champions League last 16.
"When I came on I changed the game, I scored that goal and after we scored another to win 2-1," he recalls. "That was the turning point for me and my career at Real Madrid. From that game, people started seeing why I'm here and my career at Real Madrid was all the time going up.
"I have big trust and big confidence from the coach [Ancelotti]. From the beginning he was clear with what he wanted from me and how important I am for the team. That helped me a lot and I could show my quality on the pitch.
"Last season I played some good games but our results were not following and that's why maybe people didn't appreciate my performance. This season, I am at the peak of my game and we have good results. We are fighting for all three trophies and I feel really, really good."
Real are level on points with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga, will face Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final after becoming the first team in history to get there without conceding a goal, and face Schalke in the Champions League last 16.
Modric feels his team have the quality to win all three trophies but makes special mention of the Champions League - Real are desperately chasing 'La Decima', a 10th European Cup - and he is also itching to end the wait for a first major trophy of his career.
Not that the hard work would stop there.
"I'm living a very special time at the moment but this will only push me to give more, to not relax," he says. "Because this is the club where you can't relax. What was yesterday does not work for tomorrow, always you have to improve yourself because the crowd and the club are so demanding.
"I don't think any club is like here. They ask so much from you and that forces you to always be at the top of your game. The pressure is huge here. But I've never had a problem with pressure, I like pressure, pressure pushes me to be better."