By Patrick Vignal
PARIS (Reuters) – A touch of Luka Modric magic handed Croatia a 1-0 win over Turkey on Sunday that puts them in pole position to successfully negotiate one of the toughest groups at Euro 2016.
Croatia were the better side and created more chances but needed the brilliance of their inspirational midfielder to win their Group D opener at Parc des Princes and gain a measure of revenge after their bitter quarter-final elimination by the same opponents at Euro 2008.
The Real Madrid playmaker scored the only goal, breaking the deadlock in a tense affair just before halftime by meeting a deflected clearance with a fine volley from 25 metres that bounced in front of diving Turkey goalkeeper Volkan Babacan.
Modric, who missed the opening penalty for Croatia in the 2008 shootout, made amends with an impressive display, organizing his side with calm authority before being named man of the match.
“Luka really deserves to be talked about, especially after this match, one of his best for Croatia,” said Croatia coach Ante Cacic. “He really played well, he was our leader, he scored a magical goal.”
The game, watched by large contingents of passionate fans from both sides, was played amid tight scrutiny after the ugly scenes that marred Saturday’s game between England and Russia.
A few incidents were reported, but nothing like what happened in Marseille.
A cloud of smoke after the goal suggested flares had been launched from a section of the stadium packed with Croatia fans and a supporter invaded the pitch to join the goal celebrations before being pushed out by security. A smoke bomb was later thrown in behind the Croatia goal.
Police reported 15 arrests after scuffles outside the stadium and around the fan zone near the Eiffel Tower
Croatia, who had one foot in the last four eight years ago until they lost to Turkey on penalties, still have work to do to qualify from a group also featuring holders Spain and the Czech Republic, who face each other in Toulouse on Monday.
Turkey, who had failed to qualify for a major tournament since their impressive Euro 2008 campaign, now face a struggle to reach the knockout stages.
“We will do our best and keep fighting … but unfortunately we never start well in those big tournaments,” said Turkey coach Fatih Terim, whose team put up a brave challenge in the first half but then ran out of steam.
Turkey looked nervous in the opening stages and Croatia dictated the pace, with Modric and Ivan Rakitic pulling the strings in midfield.
The game was lively but with no clear chance for either side until Croatia midfielder Milan Badelj offered the first shot on target with a volley from 20 metres that failed to surprise Babacan.
Seconds later, Turkey threatened for the first time with a header by Ozan Tufan from a fine Gokhan Gonul cross.
The game became scrappy with quite a few fouls, notably from Turkey, and Croatia defender Vedran Corluka had to play most of the match with a bandaged, bleeding head after being elbowed by striker Cenk Tosun while fighting for a high ball.
Croatia looked in command after the break and created a few opportunities, notably when captain Darijo Srna rattled the crossbar from a free kick after Rakitic was brought down outside the box.
Playing a major tournament in France brings back sweet memories for Croatia, who lost in the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup to host nation France before beating the Netherlands to finish third.
(Additional reporting by Phil O’Connor, Matt Smitt, Julien Pretot and Sophie Louet; Editing by Ian Chadband)