Don’t be fooled by his claims that he is a “normal” player – Madrid and Croatia’s hero has proved once more that he is an extraordinary talent

Softly spoken and self-effacing almost to a fault, not even being crowned the world’s best player could inflate Luka Modric’s ego.

The 2018 Ballon d’Or winner ended a decade of tyrannical domination of the award by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who had shared out equally – if not always uncontroversially – the last 10 awards. Modric, however, saw his triumph as a win for the ‘little guy’.

“Nobody has the right to compare themselves to [Messi and Ronaldo] the Real Madrid star told France Football upon receiving his new prize. “They are the best in the history of this sport.

“I am happy that someone normal is able to win the Ballon d’Or.”

Do not be fooled by Modric’s diffidence, however. Beneath that unassuming exterior is a truly magnificent playmaker who fully deserves to have finished ahead of two footballing behemoths – a fact he underlined with a match-winning performance to crown Madrid world champions on Saturday.

Santiago Solari’s men could have been forgiven for taking the Club World Cup final rather lightly. On the opposite side of the pitch were unheralded Al Ain, the local heroes in Abu Dhabi who had ejected Wellington, Esperance de Tunis and River Plate on the road to the decider but who were surely outmatched against the winners of the last three Champions League titles.

Part of River’s downfall was underestimating that rival, though, and Madrid almost paid for the same mistake early on. A dreadful error from Marcelo just 12 minutes into the final sent Hussein El Shahat bursting through on goal and only Sergio Ramos’ miraculous stop on the line stopped the favourites going behind after Al Ain’s dangerman had danced past a flailing Thibaut Courtois.

That near-miss was a show of the absent-mindedness and apparent lack of focus that has hurt Madrid time and again in this desperately disappointing start to the season. Luckily for the Liga side, they had an ace up their sleeve in the shape of their Croatian genius.

Minutes after Ramos’ intervention Modric was given an inch of space on the edge of the Al Ain box. He does not need much more. The midfielder whipped the ball past goalkeeper Eisa with an unstoppable effort, a near-mirror image of the strike that finished off Argentina in this summer’s World Cup as this time round he opted to use his left boot.

From that point onwards, and despite another scare when the brilliant Caio scooped over Courtois’ head only to be called back for a marginal offside, the game was Madrid’s to lose.

In the second half Marcos Llorente stepped up to take a leaf out of Modric’s and fire home a cracking volley, his first-ever Madrid goal effectively ending the final as a contest. Modric stepped up once again with a perfect corner to allow Ramos to extend the scoreline, before Al Ain grabbed a late consolation. An even later own goal meant that Madrid ran out 4-1 winners.

After all the strife of the last few months, the Merengue received some welcome breathing space in the shape of silverware as Solari takes his first trophy in the hotseat. What is clear is that this team, dishevelled as it has been recently, still depend heavily on their No. 10, who once more has responded when it most counts.

Perhaps Modric does not have the scintillating natural talent of Messi (but then who does?) or Ronaldo’s irrepressible eye for goal. But the facts speak for themselves. At 33 he continues to pull the strings in the team that have been crowned European and world champions for the last three years. He shows no sign of slowing down.

When his heroics in leading unfancied Croatia to the World Cup final are taken into consideration there can be no doubt that he was the right man for the Ballon d’Or, a feat only made more exceptional by the fact he overthrew those two monsters to take the prize. Those who gripe and moan about the decision, often on social media with avatars depicting one of the pair above, miss the point about what these awards are supposed to signify.

To put it simply, Modric was the outstanding star of the past 12 months, bringing his game to new heights to lead Madrid to further silverware and Croatia to the brink of glory. Like Andres Iniesta before him, he cannot be judged solely on goals, assists and other dry statistics; watching him glide across the pitch and making his side tick is a work of art that needs no numerical support.

Perhaps one can only fault his own perceptions of himself, particularly when it comes to speaking to reporters. Normal? There is absolutely nothing normal about Modric and his marvellous 2018.