Pedri is Spain's key against Modric's Croatia

Football
By AFP | Jun 15, 2024
Spain’s Pedri celebrates after scoring against Northern Ireland during an international friendly match on June 8. [AFP]

Spain's Euro 2024 hopes have been bolstered by Pedri Gonzalez's return to form and the Barcelona playmaker could prove crucial in their stern opening battle against Luka Modric's dangerous Croatia.

The Real Madrid midfielder, 38, is still the standard-bearer for his country and his midfield duel with Pedri lends a Clasico feel to the heavyweight clash in Berlin on Saturday.

Spain, Croatia, Italy and Albania comprise Group B, the tournament's toughest quartet, but a resurgent Pedri could give La Roja the edge they crave.

Pedri was vital as Spain reached the Euro 2020 semi-finals but repeated hamstring injuries have set his career back in the years since.

In the final weeks of the season and in Spain's warm-up friendlies Pedri has shown strong signs of returning to his best.

The midfielder struck twice last week playing in an advanced role as Spain thrashed Northern Ireland 5-1 in their final warm-up friendly.

It opened debate in Spain over Pedri's best position, as he sometimes operates deeper in midfield, but coach Luis de la Fuente says he needs the Canary Islander to make the difference in the final third.

"We want him to play closer to the area, between the lines, taking advantage of the final ball. I think we can get a great deal from him," said De la Fuente, grateful for Pedri's grit in his fitness battle.

"I thank Pedri, he's an example of overcoming, effort, a school of values (in himself), he's important for everyone."

The coach has been a strong supporter of Pedri and the midfielder revealed with every injury setback, De la Fuente would call to offer support.

The coach says he does not know where Pedri's ceiling is and encouraged the midfielder to keep improving.

"Pedri had to find himself, we don't know what his best version is because he's so good, he is infinite," added De la Fuente.

"We coaches can give confidence to players, but it is the player who has to take the step forward."

Up against an elite midfield trio in Modric, Manchester City's Mateo Kovacic and Al-Nassr's Marcelo Brozovic, Pedri will be thrown in at the deep end.

In the World Cup Croatia reached the 2018 final and 2022 semi-finals, while Spain beat them in extra-time in the last 16 in Euro 2020.

Pedri scored a bizarre own goal from nearly 50 yards away after a mistake by Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon, the one minor blot on his copybook in a superb tournament.

"I'm finding that I'm much better than before, I think that you saw with my first goal (against Northern Ireland) that I've left the injury behind me," said Pedri ahead of Euro 2024.

"I worked so much, after various setbacks, to reach the end of the season in good shape."

Spain defeated Croatia on penalties in the Nations League final in June 2023 to win their first trophy since Euro 2012.

The goalless draw over 120 minutes exemplified how evenly matched the teams are, although Spain were without Pedri because of his fitness state at the time.

The midfielder missed half of this season injured but after returning from his latest hamstring problem in April, came back strongly, quickly convincing De la Fuente he was ready for the Euros.

If he can get the better of Modric and Croatia in Berlin's Olympiastadion, three-time winners Spain will begin to believe they have what it takes to make it back there a month later for the final on July 14.

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