“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
Thanks to a talent-laden squad filled with easily recognisable stars, Croatia certainly had no shortage of admirers as Euro 2016 began. The Balkan state could call upon some notable names, from Captain Darijo Srna to established figures like Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić of Real Madrid. The main issue with tipping them for glory in France appeared to be the presence of Spain alongside them in Group F.
By the time their clash in that pool came around, those feelings had only intensified. Italy had topped their own group in impressive fashion, meaning that whoever lost at the Bordeaux’s Stade Matmut Atlantique would then meet the Azzurri in the knockout stages. Neither side found that prospect particularly appealing, each harbouring hopes of a run to the final and a chance at lifting the Henri-Delauney trophy.
The reigning European champions had handily despatched Turkey and came into the match brimming with confidence, their morale boosted further still when Alvaro Morata gave them a seventh minute lead. Fiorentina’s Nikola Kalinić fired their opponents level, flicking home a cross from Ivan Perišić just before half time.
After the break the game became much more intense, before the creator of Croatia’s first goal stole the show. Played in by Kalinić on a superb counter attack, Perišić sprinted up the field and beat David De Gea at the near post to give his side an unlikely victory. It was a deserved strike from a player who had tormented La Furia Roja throughout the encounter, his performance instrumental in the win that saw Croatia top the group.
Statistics taken from FourFourTwo’s StatsZone app show that the Inter winger completed four of the five take-ons he attempted, leaving a string of Spanish defenders trailing in his wake as he danced down the left flank. Yet – as well as adding a goal and an assist – he also showed the other side to his game, winning two tackles and three aerial duels while registering an interception and recovering the ball five times.
“What can I say, this was a really special evening for us,” Perišić said “I have to congratulate all my team-mates and our supporters, we did a really good job in the group stage but this is just the beginning.” Sadly that was not to be as Croatia were eliminated by eventual winners Portugal, turning in a desperately poor performance just when it seemed they had found their best form.
But it was still a fine tournament for Perišić, who weighed in with nine goals and six assists for Inter last term, helping him become the target of a number clubs in the summer transfer window. Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain have all been linked with the 27-year-old, but it is perhaps Liverpool who provide the most intriguing destination should the player decide to leave San Siro.
Indeed, after bouncing around from Hadjuk Split to Sochaux, Roeselare and Club Brugge, it was with Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund where Perišić first shot to prominence. He netted nine goals in his debut season at the Westfalenstadion, including a wonderful long range volley in the Champions League against Arsenal. But after Marco Reus was brought back to Dortmund, the Croatian complained to the press about not playing often enough, prompting the Coach to respond disdainfully.
“Public whining belongs to kindergarten, not to the world of adults,” Klopp told a press conference when asked about his player’s comments. “If he doesn’t play, a football professional should shut his mouth, work hard and make the coach select him – not complain about it to the reporters.”
Sold to Wolfsburg, Perišić would do just that, learning the value of professional dedication from his compatriot Ivica Olić who had a profound effect on the new arrival. “I’d heard about Olić’s commitment before, but only after I’d seen him in action did I realise how much harder I had to work and change my habits in order to be even close to him” the young apprentice said back in 2014. “He became my role model and broadened my horizons at a crucial stage of my career, helping choose the right path.
Ironing out his inconsistencies, Perišić blossomed into a star in his own right, recording 21 goals and eleven assists in 88 appearances for Wolfsburg. In an ironic twist, he was extremely influential in the 2015 DFB-Pokal Final, helping Die Wolfe to a 3-1 victory over Dortmund in what was Klopp’s last match in charge.
He certainly profited from that spat, just as he delivered the knockout blow to Spain earlier this month. In his current form, it seems that Ivan Perišić just can’t miss.