Luka Modric raised his eyebrows and exhaled forcefully, a knowing look on his face. From 20 yards, he'd sent a blistering half-volley toward the top-right corner of the Granada net, only to see goalkeeper Andres Fernandez spectacularly deny him.
Modric had caught it and had caught it well. Really well. He knew it too. "The radar is on," said the look on his face.
Real Madrid weren't "on," though. At the Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes on Sunday, Madrid were sluggish, wasteful and flirted with danger in a way that's becoming uncomfortably regular away from home. Against them, Granada were energetic and pesky, their split-personality existence showing its good side as Jose Ramon Sandoval's men, for the second time this season, put on a thwart-Madrid clinic.
When the hosts had the ball, they were direct and broke with speed. Without it, they closed down space, hunted isolated midfielders, fouled relentlessly and expertly trod the fine line between physicality and recklessness.
When they went 1-0 down, they were unfortunate; it was a moment's madness. When they equalised, they'd got what they deserved. The game had that feel about it, too. For Madrid, it felt headed for frustration, for despair. For title chances dashed.
But then Modric did it, and it had to be him.
For almost an hour-and-a-half, the Croatian had prodded and probed, searching for openings in the Granada defence with a relentless tenacity but also largely on his own. In the first half, he'd almost teed-up Karim Benzema twice; in the second half, he'd presented the Frenchman a golden chance and went close himself.
By the 85th minute, it was time to take matters into his own hands, and later he would reveal he'd been instructed to do so. "They told me to shoot more," said Modric, so shoot he did. With precision. With poise. With power.
The instant he hit it, it looked in. The instant it was, its colossal importance was recognised.
He might be more than that, you know.
One of the major themes at Real Madrid in Zidane's still-short tenure has been the unparalleled influence of Modric.
For several seasons now, the Croatian has been recognised among the world's finest, but in the last month, the sensations from him have been different; they've gone to another level. Looking empowered, carrying the disposition of a leader, Modric has looked like Zidane's centrepiece, and Madrid as a unit has looked like Modric's team.
Indeed, Sunday was a continuation of the trend rather than an outlier. In the three recent maulings of Deportivo La Coruna, Sporting Gijon and Espanyol at home at the Santiago Bernabeu, the 30-year-old established Madrid's fluency through his calm conduction. When the team travelled to Seville to take on Real Betis, he was the best player on the pitch, and it wasn't even close.
Ditto at Los Carmenes.
Tactically, some subtle tweaks to Modric's role have been evident under Zidane. In the five games under the Frenchman, the former Spurs star has started deeper and tighter to Toni Kroos, but more notable has been the way Modric has pushed forward regularly and with intent to join in attacks. At times, he's both starting the moves and playing the final ball, assuming an architect-style role.
Marca, of course, is never shy in trumpeting the virtues of Madrid's stars, but the volume here is notable and indicative of a certain shift.
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Real clutch onto Modric https://t.co/yFbQZVLrxH #LigaBBVA https://t.co/LM4vpQ4BiE2/7/2016, 9:40:52 PM
When Madrid were embarrassed at home by Barcelona in last November's Clasico, it was Modric who spoke up about his team's shortcomings. "I think we weren't on the pitch," he said when asked what had gone wrong that evening, per Sid Lowe of the Guardian. "We have to be a team; when we're a team we are very good but when, like today, we are not it is difficult."
It was a telling line, and not just because of what was said but because of who said it. At Madrid, Modric is widely considered the most team-first player at the club. He's composed, thoughtful. He doesn't do rash. He doesn't seek attention or manoeuvre himself politically.
When he talks, it pays to listen, and his post-Clasico line has positioned him as a voice of quiet authority that has been evident since.
When Madrid's players were quizzed on the coaching change from Rafa Benitez to Zidane in early January, a large number were quick to express delight in the move. Cristiano Ronaldo did. Isco did. Marcelo did. Keylor Navas did. Ramos did.
But it was Modric's assertion that carried the most weight.
"I feel sorry for Rafa and I'd like to thank him for all his hard work," said the Croatian after Zidane's first game, "but speaking honestly, and on the back of today's game, I think the change has done us good." His praise for Zidane since has felt weightier than that of others, too.
This has been important in his ascent to prominence. On the pitch he's been dominant, yes, but it's more than that. Emboldened, quietly assertive, carrying a genuine sense of authority, Modric suddenly looks like his team's leader and not simply an outstanding midfielder.
"He's one of the backbones of the team," said Ramos of Modric. Maybe he's more than that, though. Maybe he is the backbone. The centrepiece.
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