As the 2010-2011 UEFA Champions League Playoff Round wrapped up on the 24th of August, SV Werder Bremen squeaked through to the Group Stage after seeing a first leg dominant performance at the Weserstadion overturned dramatically in Genoa. After an early brace from star striker Giampaolo Pazzini and a late dagger from strike partner Antonio Cassano, U.C. Sampdoria took a 4-3 aggregate lead into stoppage time with the Champions League Group Stage looming large. With the party set to start at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, Markus Rosenberg ensured that extra time would be needed to settle this match of the highest stakes with a goal right at the death. Claudio Pizarro broke Samp hearts with a goal ten minutes into the extra period, and Werder Bremen progressed while Sampdoria’s season of promise plummeted in epic fashion. While the loss to Bremen did not directly cause the implosion that occurred within the Blucherchiati, ultimately, Sampdoria chief Ricardo Garrone ripped the core of the team apart when he sold Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini to Champions League contenders A.C. Milan and Inter Milan, respectively. Fast forward nine months, and Sampdoria, a team that began their campaign in the Champions League, had their season ended in a 3-1 loss to Roma, leaving them in 18th place and relegated from Serie A.
What does the fall of Sampdoria have to do with Luka Modric? The Croatia and Tottenham Hotspur F.C. midfielder has attracted significant attention in the offseason from two of English footballs giants, Chelsea F.C. and Manchester United F.C. His stock is as high as it has ever been following a campaign with Spurs that saw them become the darlings of the UEFA Champions League. Like Sampdoria, Tottenham had to qualify for the group stage of the Champions League through a playoff after finishing the 2009-2010 Barclays Premier League season in 4th place. Like Sampdoria, they were defeated heavily away in the first leg, but fortunes turned during the European night at White Hart Lane where strike partners Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe put four goals past Swiss Young Boys and sent the North London club into the group stage to face Sampdoria slayers Werder Bremen, Dutch Champions F.C. Twente, and none other than defending European champions Inter Milan.
Spurs went on to win the group in stunning fashion, with matches including those two unforgettable performances versus the holders that left Inter and the rest of Europe talking about the dynamic wing play of Gareth Bale. While Bale gathered all of the plaudits for his dominant performance against the world’s best fullback, Inter captain Javier Zanetti applauded the performance of the midfield maestro in the number 14. "We faced Modric twice in this season's Champions League and I think he's a great player," he told Sky Sport Italia. Modric and Tottenham went on to face seven times tournament champions A.C. Milan in the knockout stage, and once again Spurs shocked the world with a 1-0 aggregate victory including another great performance at the San Siro. The ageing Milan midfield was creativity and technique of stars Modric and Bale, and along with disciplined defending from Sandro, the London side went on to hold two famous clean sheets against the Rossoneri.
While the fortunes of both Sampdoria and Tottenham Hotspur turned out very differently, the fate of Sampdoria should be a warning to the future Tottenham. After a largely successful European campaign, Spurs finished a disappointing 5th place in the league and out of the Champions League spots. With young star players like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale attracting attention from the top teams in Europe, Tottenham’s front office has come under significant pressure, with Chairman Daniel Levy having to come out many times to clarify that the most important Spurs players will not be sold. The parallels are visible between Levy’s claims and those of Sampdoria’s Riccardo Garrone’s, when he claimed sales would not be made amid speculation that Juventus were interested in his star forward Pazzini. "Pazzini to Juventus? Not even for €100m," he told GR Parlamento. Following the defeat to Werder Bremen and a midseason personal rift with forward Antonio Cassano, Sampdoria sold the Italian international to A.C. Milan for a mere €5m. Soon after, Pazzini was also shown the door after Italian champions Inter came knocking, and a little over €10m was all it took to see him join the Nerazzurri, far fewer than the outrageous €100m Garrone claimed initially.
With Chelsea’s recent £22 million offer being deemed “ridiculous” by Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, the actual valuation of his talismanic midfielder remains uncertain. Critics slam the outrageous prices in the transfer market for being inflated, and many have asserted similar claims regarding Spurs value of Modric. On the surface, Modric’s 3 goals from 37 shots and mere 2 assists seem mediocre for such a highly rated central midfielder. But Modric’s impact on the game is more than just raw numbers of assists and goals. With a little further investigation, it is clear that Modric is the engine behind the Hotspur attack, and his performances in the big games speak for themselves. Against Manchester United in January, Modric completed 74 passes by himself, compared to 82 from the men he was battling in the central midfielder, England and Scotland internationals Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher, respectively. Also, in the famous win over Internazionale in London, Modric played the ball 84 times, second to only reigning UEFA Club Midfielder of the Year Wesley Sneijder. Statistically, Modric’s passing seems even more impressive compared to his colleagues in the Premier League, with his 66 created scoring chances in the season ranking higher than stalwarts Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Paul Scholes as well as rising stars Jack Wilshire and Scott Parker. His 84% pass completion rate (1748 completed passes from 2070 attempted) would make anyone in world short of Xavi and Iniesta blush, as he ranks higher than Blackpool talisman Charlie Adam, North London rival Cesc Fabregas and even teammate Rafael van der Vaart. Even defensively, Modric has a knack for disrupting the flow of play, with an average of 2.5 interceptions made per game. Only Alex Song’s 2.6 and Nigel de Jong’s 2.7 interceptions per game were better, and it should be noted that both players are deployed as defensive or holding midfielders, while Luka Modric is in a farther advanced position as the creator in the midfield. Upon analysis of Modric’s contribution to the Spurs team, it seems that Redknapp’s claims that Chelsea’s offer was ridiculous might not be too far from the truth.
Every player in Europe craves Champions League football, especially those who have been freshly introduced to it, but it would be a huge detriment to Tottenham Hotspur F.C. if they were to fold and sell their stars this offseason. Cassano and Pazzini will be playing in the Champions League next season while the club they called home at this time last year will be struggling in the Italian Serie B. While Spurs drop is only to the UEFA Europa League, it is clear that if White Hart Lane wants to host another European night of the highest quality, it will need its best players from the current squad to remain with the club amid pressure from bigger teams. The team can undoubtedly be built around the threesome of Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart for the future, as they are only 25, 21 and 28 respectively. While Modric might not have the blazing speed and dynamic wing play of the Welshman and the fearless attacking prowess and confidence of the Dutchman, the silky smooth runs and eye for precision passing are invaluable assets that the Croatian provides to Redknapp’s team. In a season when the Premier League boasted no true world beaters of years past (although United comfortably won the league by 9 points and were losing finalists in the Champions League), parity was hailed as teams from Wolverhampton to Sunderland to Blackpool thrilled watching audiences. If an exciting team like Tottenham Hotspur were to be dismantled for the benefit of one of the perennial giants in the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, it would be a shame for the league and the fans of Spurs. Sampdoria went from Champions League debutants to an imploded team facing relegation, and the party that was minutes from starting on that August night in Genoa was gone in a flash, with the thoughts of celebration and grandeur relegated to distant memories. The smoke cleared and the stars were gone, while miles away in North London, it seems that now the smoke is just starting to rise.