The Croatian shone against Real Sociedad at the weekend but, with Casemiro suspended and Toni Kroos an injury doubt, where will he play on Wednesday?
Football has a short memory and despite Paris Saint-Germains first-leg dominance, hope has been growing at the Santiago Bernabeu that Real Madrid can overturn a 1-0 deficit in Wednesdays Champions League last-16 showdown in the Spanish capital.
Kylian Mbappe scored the only goal of the game at the Parc des Princes and, even though he suffered a foot injury in training on Monday, the France forward should be fit for the return fixture.
However, the mood in Madrid remains one of optimism, thanks in no small part to last weekends convincing 4-1 thrashing of La Liga rivals Real Sociedad.
Carlo Ancelotti has his concerns, of course.
Marco Verratti ruled the midfield in the first leg, with Madrid forced to retreat deep into their own territory, so the Spaniards hopes of turning the tie around have hardly been helped by the unavailability of both Casemiro and Toni Kroos.
The Brazilian lynchpin is suspended after picking up a booking in Paris, while the German playmaker is a major injury doubt, although there is still some hope that he can play some part in the second leg.
Their absences place a lot of pressure on the slim shoulders of Luka Modric, although as the Croatian demonstrated on Saturday, he is more than capable of bearing it, even at 36.
The veteran is Madrid’s true footballing leader – even if Marcelo is the actual owner of the captain’s armband after Sergio Ramos’s departure to PSG – and Modrics stellar performance against Real Sociedad confirmed Los Blancos’ title bid is no mirage.
With Barcelona flying up the table, a Madrid wobble could have been damaging, but they stepped up a gear with a classy display to move eight points clear.
Modric scored a sensational goal from distance before the break, showing fancy footwork on the edge of the box before unleashing a rocket into Alex Remiro’s top corner.
36-year-old Luka Modric still celebrating every goal like its his first ???? pic.twitter.com/OqhTVGpwx6
The Croatian may have to play deeper, though, against PSG.
Indeed, if Kroos is not fit to start, then Modric looks the best candidate to play in Casemiro’s position, with his experience and tactical discipline potentially vital in front of the defence.
The other options – Eduardo Camavinga and Fede Valverde – are both box-to-box players and could be freed by Modric sitting.
Ancelotti may coincidentally have stumbled across a formula which gives Madrid the energy they need in midfield to stem Verratti & Co.
Camavinga has been trialled in the holding role on occasion but his best performances have come when operating as an interior midfielder, as he showed against Real Sociedad.
Like Modric, he also scored with a thumping effort from distance, although his took a deflection.
“Playing in the pivot role has been hard for him because it’s a very tactical position,” said Ancelotti. “As a central midfielder, we can use his energy more.”
Both Camavinga and Valverde will also be determined to seize their chance and prove they can earn a place in the team, despite the continuing superiority of the legendary midfield trio that won Madrid three consecutive Champions Leagues.
One potential negative of using Modric in a deeper position is that he will have significantly further to run to get up the pitch and make a difference in attacking areas.
His incisive passing and quick interplay is so good that Madrid might miss it when it comes to breaking down the Parisian defence, while he showed how deadly he can be from distance against Real Sociedad.
???? @lukamodric10 and long-range goals: a love story#RealFootball pic.twitter.com/mElv4nkwuP
“Shoot and [it’s a] goal, I told you, friend,” wrote Marco Asensio on Instagram, posting a photo with Modric. “I have to listen to you more,” admitted Modric in the replies.
David Alaba can play in midfield but Ferland Mendy’s suspension means he will be needed at left-back, or in central defence if Nacho is picked to replace the Frenchman.
The other option that Ancelotti could choose would be to pick Isco or Dani Ceballos in midfield along with one of Camavinga or Valverde, hoping the Spaniards’ similar profile to Toni Kroos might allow Madrid more chance of keeping the ball.
After barely appearing in the first half of the season, Ancelotti has brought Isco back into the fold in 2022 with a string of substitute appearances, but it would be a big gamble to bet on the Spain international, and is, therefore, not one of the more likely options.
If Madrid instead use the dual-dynamos Camavinga and Valverde, it might also enable them to press PSG when they try to bring the ball out.
Fans at the Bernabeu will certainly not tolerate a performance as defensively-minded as Madrid offered in France a few weeks ago.
“I will not change the system but we will press more,” said Ancelotti, when asked about the second leg last week.
At least Karim Benzema, who scored his 20th La Liga goal of the season on Saturday, is fit again and will be able to show more than he mustered on an uncharacteristically quiet night at the Parc des Princes.