Niko Kranjcar: Rangers recruit can shine if rust is overcome

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
Niko Kranjcar
Kranjcar featured in just seven matches for New York Cosmos after his move in March

Niko Kranjcar still has questions to ask of himself. On the cusp of turning 32, he might have accepted offers from the Far East or the Middle East, or an extension at New York Cosmos, but he wants to challenge his game in Europe again.

He was available for free after leaving Dynamo Kiev in January, but accepted that clubs across the continent would not be keen on signing someone who hadn't played competitively for several months and would need time to regain match sharpness.

Kranjcar called an old family friend for help and Jerome de Bontin, formerly a director of Monaco and previously general manager of Major League Soccer side New York Red Bulls, arranged a training spell at New York Cosmos, of the North American Soccer League, the tier beneath MLS.

The Croatian attacking midfielder impressed the coaching staff enough to earn a contract for the 'spring season' and was expected to sign again for the 'fall season' before the opportunity to move to Rangers emerged.

Fitness first

For Kranjcar, it was a chance to return to Europe, but also to test the limits of his fitness.

He played seven games for Cosmos, with his final appearance cut short after three minutes against Tampa Bay Rowdies due to injury on 22 May. He has been recovering at home in Croatia while also working through his coaching badges with the Croatian FA.

He wants to know himself if his body is still strong and resilient enough to allow him to operate at a decent level.

Following his Tottenham exit in 2012, Kranjcar endured a frustrating time at Dynamo Kiev, spending two seasons on loan at Queens Park Rangers and making 52 appearances across those terms at Loftus Road.

Injury ruled him out of the 2014 World Cup, with the last of his 81 international appearances coming in November 2013.

Niko Kranjcar
Kranjcar played in three major finals for Croatia

Kranjcar is young enough to believe that his career still has years left in it, but the view within football has been that he has fitness concerns to answer.

The medical at Rangers will have covered his immediate condition and the challenge now is to contribute to the team over the course of the full season.

All in the mind

In terms of ability, Kranjcar has always been a technician. Even in his youth, he was renowned for his skill and vision but was never noted for his enthusiasm for tracking back, covering for team-mates or working box-to-box.

"He is an extraordinary footballer who could have had a more prestigious career had he been German or French," said De Bontin, whose son attended the same American school in Vienna as Kranjcar while his father Zlatko played for Rapid Vienna.

"He did great for Croatia but he would have had more recognition had he been from a larger country. He also suffered from having to compete with Gareth Bale [with whom he is quite friendly] during his time with Tottenham.

"Some believe that Niko was a better technician but Gareth had speed that Niko could not match. Niko has an incredible vision of the field and a remarkable pass accuracy.

"I remember after his success at the U-17 World Cup that the French press called him 'Le Zidane des Carpates' or 'Zidane of the East'."

Kranjcar is mentally strong, too. He had to live up to the reputation of his father, a famous player and then manager of the national team. There was also criticism when he made his international debut under Zlatko's management, but that kind of pressure has never affected him.

"I value his opinion and I learnt growing up from all the attention around him and his relationship with the media," Kranjcar once said of his father.

"I breathed football and grew up with it. Once the spotlight was changed to me it wasn't such a sudden thing. It was so much easier for me when I got into the spotlight."

Niko Kranjcar in action against Scotland
One of Kranjcar's 16 international goals came in a Hampden friendly in 2008

At 17, he became the youngest ever captain of Dinamo Zagreb, the club that his father was most closely associated with, and yet was still prepared to leave at 20 following various disagreements with the hierarchy and join their arch rivals, Hadjuk Split.

It is a measure of the reputation of the player, who grew up alongside the likes of Luka Modric and Eduardo, that more than 10,000 supporters attended his first press conference as a Hadjuk Split player.

Fitting the mould

With his passing, creativity and top-level experience, a fully-fit and match sharp Kranjcar would be an asset to Rangers but where does he fit into the side?

He has never been a winger, even if he was often posted out wide during his spells at Portsmouth and Tottenham. By nature and talent, he is a classic number 10, a player to sit in the hole behind a main striker and orchestrate attacks without being concerned about defensive duties.

Rangers manager Mark Warburton has always tended to play 4-3-3 with a sitting midfielder, so Kranjcar would need to play in one of the advanced central midfield roles.

That's where he ended up playing at New York Cosmos, after first being posted out wide. He is, though, resourceful enough to cope with challenges.

"He is terrific person who has been appreciated wherever he has played," said De Botin.

"Niko is outgoing, smiling, enthusiastic and generous of his person. He always tries to go the extra mile to please the fans. He demonstrated that again in NY, where he never shied away from being available to Cosmos and Croatian fans.

"I have no doubt that Rangers fans will rapidly fall in love with Niko Kranjcar."

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