Mateo Kovacic was voted man of the match as Chelsea beat Al Hilal 1-0, making sure they qualified for Sunday’s Club World Cup final.
With N’Golo Kanté not fully fit, Kovacic got the start in midfield next to Jorginho and made the most of it with a superb display.
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And when Kanté did come on at half-time, he did so for Jorginho not Kovacic as the Croatian played the full 90 minutes for Chelsea, acting as the key anchor in midfield with his veteran partners being given more license to do their thing.
Kovacic was full of hard-running, solid tackling, forward passing and yes even good dribbling. Justifying his status as man of the match even as Romelu Lukaku turned out to be the match-winner.
It’s perhaps not a surprise if one recalls how good he was for Inter, but that was years ago as a no. 10 – his move to Real Madrid saw him hoover up titles if not playing time, but he developed his defensive skills there as he was asked to play deeper.
These spells at elite European clubs now seem to be apprenticeships for Kovacic, with the midfielder learning from team-mates and growing into his role as a starter with Chelsea.
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These views are in alignment with one of those veterans who Kovacic learned from; his compatriot Luka Modric. The Real Madrid legend had spoken highly of Kovacic before, and did so again in a recent interview.
“My successor in Croatia or the most talented player, I think, is Mateo Kovacic,” said the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner. “He has played for important clubs like Inter Milan, Real Madrid, now he is at Chelsea doing things very well and that’s why let’s say that he is one of the successors, he can be the leader of the next Croatia.”
Those are massive words of praise from a player as absurdly talented and decorated as Modric, but watching Kovacic play against Al Hilal you can see just why Modric was compelled to say them.
The Croatian was so good he is surely in-line to start the Club World Cup final against Palmeiras, where Chelsea will hope to overturn the heartbreak of 2012 when they lost the final to Corinthians, and deliver the only trophy the Blues have yet to win.
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