MADRID -- Croatia needs Luka Modric to get back to his best. And fast.
The country's top player, who was targeted by critics after Real Madrid recently lost consecutive matches to Girona and Tottenham, will be well-rested when Croatia attempts to secure a World Cup spot in the playoffs against Greece.
The 32-year-old Modric did not play with Madrid last weekend in the Spanish league, getting some important time off ahead of Thursday's first leg in Zagreb following his less-than-stellar performances.
"This is no real issue," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said, according to the Croatian soccer federation. "Luka has never let down the national team."
Real Madrid was in turmoil following the back-to-back losses, with Modric playing in both games. But he stayed on the bench throughout the team's 3-0 win against Las Palmas on Sunday.
Despite his diminutive stature, Modric has been an indisputable starter in Madrid's midfield and is known for his reading of the game and good close control.
"Losing when playing for Real Madrid is harder than with any other team," Modric said. "Football can be like this. These things happen. Last season we went through spells like this and we always came back to be the Real Madrid that everyone knows."
Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has often rotated Modric out of the lineup before international games, knowing that Croatia is heavily dependent on the midfielder and that he rarely gets a break while with the national team.
And it shouldn't be any different now, with a World Cup spot on the line for the Croats. The decisive return game will be on Sunday in Greece.
Croatia was in position to automatically qualify for next year's tournament in Russia, but a 1-0 loss at Turkey and a 1-1 draw against Finland allowed Iceland to take over first place in Group I.
The results also cost coach Ante Cacic his job, and Dalic was brought in ahead of the team's 2-0 win at Ukraine in the final group match.
"Everything is in our hands, and even though we respect Greece, Croatia has to present its quality," Dalic said. "The whole nation awaits success."
Croatia also needed to go through a playoff to make it to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, eliminating Iceland 2-0 on aggregate. It didn't make it to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but Croatia was in Germany in 2006, when the young Modric played two games as a substitute in the group stage.
Modric quickly established himself as one of Croatia's most important players. He was included in the "Team of the Tournament" at the 2008 European Championship, and was among FIFA's best 11 for the last two seasons.
Other top players in Croatia's squad include Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic, who practiced separately from his teammates this week because of a hamstring injury.
Midfielder Milan Badelj is set to miss both games because of a left thigh injury.
Greece is trying to make it to the World Cup for the third straight time. It is coming off its best performance ever at the 2014 tournament in Brazil, when it reached the last 16.
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