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Soccer-Croatia still relying on cool hand Luka - coach Stimac

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

ZAGREB, March 7 (Reuters) - Luka Modric's mediocre season at Real Madrid has raised doubts about his international place but Croatia coach Igor Stimac says the midfielder will again be his driving force in this month's World Cup qualifying matches.

Croatia, joint top of Group A with Belgium on 10 points from four games, take on bitter rivals Serbia in Zagreb on March 22 and Wales in Swansea four days later.

Some pundits have said Modric should not be an automatic starter after failing to hold down a regular first-team place at Real. Stimac, though, praised his display as a second-half substitute in Tuesday's Champions League victory at Manchester United.

"Modric did his talking on the pitch and silenced everyone who raised an issue where one wasn't due," Stimac told a news conference on Thursday. "We are very proud of him.

"His performance will lift the entire national team and not just him. He deserved the moment he enjoyed on such a big occasion and it will take a huge weight off his back, one he's been carrying since he went to Madrid."

Modric, who joined Real from Tottenham Hotspur in August, scored his team's opening goal in the 2-1 win at United as the nine-times European champions went through 3-2 on aggregate.

Stimac named six strikers on Thursday in his 26-man squad for the games with Serbia and Wales.

"The players are bound to be emotionally and physically drained after the game with Serbia but ... the result against Wales is just as important," he said.

UTMOST RESPECT

"Serbia are a good team with plenty of talent as well as experience and they are building a team for the future, hence they merit the utmost respect."

The match between the two former Yugoslav nations will be played under tight security.

Fears of crowd trouble have been allayed after both football federations agreed not to take away fans to either fixture, with the reverse encounter set for Belgrade on Sept. 6.

Stimac is delighted that tickets have sold out for the Zagreb clash.

"There are plenty of unhappy fans who couldn't get one but it's impossible to fit 500,000 people into a stadium that has a capacity of 35,000 and I wish demand exceeded supply by this ratio for every match we played," he said. (Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic, editing by Tony Jimenez)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130307/soccer-croatia-still-relying-cool-hand-luka-coach-stimac