Against the odds, Croatia have reached the last four of a World Cup for the second successive occasion and are one game away from the final, where their journey ended four years ago. The Vatreni are far from the most expansive team in the tournament but, while Luka Modric pulls the strings in the middle of the park, RB Leipzig centre-back Josko Gvardiol has produced some of the best performances of the competition.
Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic is, unsurprisingly, a big fan. Following the Balkan nation's 0-0 draw with Belgium in the group stage, a result which secured their progression to the round of 16, the boss picked out Gvardiol for praise, calling him the “best central defender in the world”. He explained, “He is so strong, confident and elegant at the same time, and does everything with incredible ease.”
Those traits were on display as Croatia edged out favourites Brazil in the quarter-finals, prevailing on penalties. At the heart of the back four, and wearing the same face mask he has done since breaking his nose against Freiburg in November, the Leipzig star was an ominous presence. Even before that clash with Neymar and Co., Gvardiol had the likes of UEFA Champions League and English Premier League winner Rio Ferdinand purring, and the plaudits continue to come his way.
The fact he is just 20 years old makes his dominant showings at the highest level even more remarkable and, once the likes of Modric and Ivan Perisic hang up their boots, Gvardiol is in line to become his nation's leading man.
Of course, anyone who has watched the youngster at Leipzig since he switched to the Red Bull Arena from Dinamo Zagreb in 2021 will be well aware of his talent. He first appeared at left-back under Jesse Marsch, but it quickly became apparent he had all the makings of a world star if he moved inside and, as soon as that happened, there was no looking back.
The 2021/22 campaign was not always easy for the Die Roten Bullen but, even when Domenico Tedesco replaced Marsch, Gvardiol went from strength. He was influential as Leipzig turned their season around to finish amongst the Bundesliga's top four and also win the DFB Cup, the first major trophy in the club's history.
Unfortunately, the defender suffered an injury towards the end of the campaign, which saw him play only seven minutes as a substitute in the final at Berlin's Olympiastadion. However, that setback does not appear to have impacted him as he continues to play a crucial role this term.
Standing at a little under 6'1'', Gvardiol is imposing. He has won 67 percent of all his duels in the Bundesliga this term, more than any other Leipzig player, and has formed a formidable partnership with the experienced Willi Orban in central defence.
It is his composure and confidence in possession that have seen him stand out from other promising young centre-backs. His average of 93 touches per match this season sees him sit top of the Leipzig list in the Bundesliga, while only Orban and Kevin Kampl can match his 92 percent passing accuracy. He is often the starting block for Leipzig attacks, a role he has embraced for his country at the World Cup.
Gvardiol has played every minute at the finals, taking the fight to the likes of Alphonso Davies, Kevin De Bruyne and Neymar - and winning. The Leipzig guardian ranks third in the tournament for clearances (46) and eighth for touches (450), and is fourth among his countrymen for pass completion (89 percent), second for recoveries (35) and joint top for interceptions (eight).
Next up is the ultimate test – Lionel Messi's Argentina. Gvardiol has already played against the Paris Saint-Germain maestro twice before, given that the French outfit were drawn with Leipzig in last season's Champions League group stage, and he named the 35-year-old as his toughest-ever opponent in September.
The way the Albiceleste and Croatia have played throughout the past few weeks indicate it could be another busy night for Gvardiol, but it will be just another opportunity to prove Dalic right.
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