CAVEATS are a right pain. Normally you squirrel them away somewhere in a piece, after you’ve said the stuff you mean and before you try and wrap it all up with some kind of smart/meaningful/at-least-conclusive line.
I can’t be doing with them, generally. They’re the shinpads of football writing – barely noticeable except when you forget them and end up in a world of pain. They exist purely as a kind of pre-emptive strike against the kind of people who lurk below the line, furious with you for wasting precious internet by expressing views mildly different to their own.
So let’s do them now. It was only Ireland. It was a group game. Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan are far from high-class international midfielders.
That done, it’s tempting to proceed merrily with some Luka Modric love while the rest of you enjoy the thin gruel of your ‘yeah, but’ sneericism.
Instead, I’m going to use your powers against you. Everything about the circumstances of Sunday night’s game was ill-suited to a player of Modric’s subtle gifts. That he imposed himself regardless is evidence he’s ready to step up a level from really, really good to mind-blowingly brilliant.
In an opening 20 minutes characterised by some of the most effective lumbering since Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Modric was generally bypassed as Mario Mandzukic found Ireland’s defence unexpectedly pliable.
Once the hurly-burly was done, though, there came an irresistible ratcheting up of pressure orchestrated by the Tottenham midfielder.
That Andrew and Whelan are not Xavi and Schweinsteiger is obvious, but both are combative midfielders aware of their limitations. Whereas a more storied midfield might have worked towards a higher purpose, the Irish pair were charged primarily with preventing an outbreak of football at all costs.
In reality they were left chasing rumours of shadows as Modric flourished, clearly refreshed after being rested for Croatia’s pre-tournament friendlies and seeming to relish the physical challenge Ireland posed.
Whether pulling defenders around the pitch with deftly angled passes or ghosting across to halt sporadic Irish surges, he was the game’s controlling force.
Sometimes languid, sometimes urgent, Modric demonstrated mastery of one of the most under-appreciated skills in a midfielder’s armoury – the judgement of tempo.
When the game needed impetus, Modric could spark it. When it was idling, he was idler in chief. Playing the most difficult role in a middling team against opponents determined to negate him, Modric shone.
Is he about to step up to the level of Pirlo and Xavi? Many would bridle even at the suggestion, but Group C’s intriguing architecture could yet frame a genuine challenge to their supremacy.
Follow Steve on Twitter @steve_graves
“the Irish pair were charged primarily with preventing an outbreak of football at all costs.”