Dejan Lovren replied in the only way he could in the circumstances. Asked whether he was looking forward to playing against Harry Kane in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final, the Croatia defender said: “He deserves every credit he gets. The last few seasons he has always scored more than 25 goals. He is one of the best strikers in the world but I like to challenge these strikers and to show to everyone that I am one of the best defenders.”
Rewind to 22 October, on an autumnal Sunday afternoon at Wembley, and there are 31 minutes on the clock. Lovren glances across to the technical area and sees that it his number being held up. on Liverpool’s substitutes’ board. Kane has already got away from Lovren twice, running in behind to score Tottenham’s first goal and leaving the defender in his wake again to set up a second. Lovren looked lost and totally
disoriented. “Ambling about like a man recently winched up off
the anaesthetist’s table,” Barney Ronay wrote in these pages .
It was uncomfortable to watch at times. Lovren had strayed into that territory where a player becomes a danger to his own team and Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, knew that he had to act. His words after the match felt just as damning as the decision to sub Lovren so early. “If I am involved in this situation on the pitch, then Harry cannot get the ball,” the Liverpool manager said. “It wouldn’t happen if I was on the pitch – but I am in the middle of the technical area in trainers. Each job is clear but we couldn’t do it.”
Lovren is clearly a better footballer than he showed that day and although his time at Anfield has been far from straightforward, by the end of
the season it seemed as though the balance had tipped
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to the point that the good outweighed the bad. Even his biggest critics at Anfield would acknowledge he enjoyed an impressive Champions League campaign, forming a fine centre-back partnership with Virgil van Dijk.
Either way Lovren has learned to live with the flak that comes his way. There is a story he tells about his childhood and how, when he was 12 years old, he wrote under the table at his apartment in Croatia: “One day I will be one of the best defenders in the world.”
People ridiculed him at school, said he “could not play like a defender”, lacked pace and was one-footed. Lovren, to his credit, used all that negativity as a source of motivation and is entitled to take satisfaction proving so many people wrong. There is no shortage of self-belief burning within him.
But even now, at the age of 29 doubts persist – in Croatia as well as on Merseyside – about Lovren’s consistency at the highest level and that nagging feeling that even on a good day there could be a blunder round the corner. It feels strange that a player who has spent the past eight years in the top flight in France and England, being transferred for the best part of £35m while moving from Dinamo Zagreb to Southampton to Liverpool, has represented his country 44 times. He has rarely been a mandatory pick for Croatia and if Vedran Corluka, the former Spurs defender, had not been plagued by injuries Lovren might well have begun this World Cup on the bench.
As it happens, Lovren has started every game with the exception of the final group match against Iceland – when Croatia were already through to the last 16 – and only Luka Modric has played more minutes than him here. Not only that but Lovren has acquitted himself well. He has made more clearances and blocks than any other Croatia player, and only Ivan Rakitic and Modric have racked up more passes.
Yet, steady as Lovren has looked at this World Cup, it would be understandable in the context of his battles with Kane last season – the striker also scored at