Rangers v Braga: How Borna Barisic mirrored Luka Modric to revive Rangers career
|Europa League last 32 first leg: Rangers v Sporting Braga|
|Venue: Ibrox Date: Thursday, 20 February Kick-off: 20:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen BBC Radio Scotland; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app|
If it can happen to a Ballon d'Or winner, it can happen to anyone. Borna Barisic is in esteemed company as a Croatia international who faced doubts over his suitability at a major club.
The left-back's move to Rangers from NK Osijek in August 2018 was a step up that brought high expectations along with the £2.2m transfer fee. He struggled to justify those hopes in a frustrating first season at Ibrox hampered by niggling injuries.
By summer it had become make or break time for the 27-year-old. Reassured by manager Steven Gerrard's confidence in him, and the unstinting backing of Croatia national boss Zlatko Dalic, Barisic has dispelled the doubts.
A contract extension last month was reward for his transformation from bit-part player to integral performer, and Dalic takes satisfaction in seeing Barisic display the same steely determination to prove the sceptics wrong as international team-mate and Real Madrid fulcrum Luka Modric.
"I was not surprised by Borna's initial struggles at Rangers," the Croatia coach told BBC Scotland. "It takes time for every player to adapt to a new club, new league, surroundings, coach, team-mates, language. You may remember that Luka Modric was named as the worst signing by Real Madrid after his first six months with the club - and you know how the rest of his career in Madrid played out.
"The difference is even bigger if you are coming from the Croatian league, which is more technical, to Scotland, where intensity, speed, aggression and physicality is at a much higher level. But in the end, quality finds its way, and Borna certainly has the quality to play at a high level."
Delivering the goods at home & abroad
Despite being stationed in defence, Barisic is a key attacking weapon for a Rangers team that puts major emphasis on overlapping full-backs.
He has risen to prominence as a creative force on the left, with crosses that consistently find their target helping to stack up stats that set him apart from most full-backs. In the Scottish Premiership this season, Barisic has six assists in 20 appearances - only four players, including team-mate Joe Aribo, have more.
And in Rangers' successful Europa League group-stage campaign, Barisic's improvement came to the fore - his total of four assists in six games was the joint highest in the tournament.
So vital has Barisic become, his return from a two-game injury absence for Thursday's last-32 first leg against Braga is a considerable relief to Gerrard.
Barisic's club form now mirrors his standing on the international stage, where Dalic kept faith with the player amid his rocky start at Ibrox, and hopes to reap the benefits when his World Cup runners-up compete at the Euros this summer, with two of Croatia's three group games at Hampden.
"Borna has been our first-choice left-back since the World Cup," he said. "That shows our trust in him. His performance also got better as he got more comfortable at Rangers. In our clinching game against Slovakia at home, he was one of the best players on the pitch and I expect him to continue producing at such a high level - we'll need it at the Euros."
Barisic's performances this season have reportedly attracted interest from Roma, but Dalic sees no need or inclination to depart Ibrox.
"I believe that Borna is happy at Rangers and the new contract proves that," he said. "I know he enjoys the fantastic crowd at Ibrox and working with Steven Gerrard because he feels he can learn a lot from him and that he improves under his guidance."
'First goal was the making of him'
Gerrard, meanwhile, believes Barisic's first Rangers goal proved a watershed moment. The Croat lit up his side's stodgy display at St Mirren earlier this season with an exquisite free-kick into the top corner to eke out a 1-0 league win, and hasn't looked back.
"That was the making of Borna in many ways because it gave him a lot of self- belief and confidence," the manager said. "It shows what a big goal can do.
"When you come to a club of this size, the first thing you have to do is win over your team-mates. You also have to take into consideration that he is moving country for the first time, away from a lot of his family. Some people take to that like a duck to water, some people take longer to settle.
"Sometimes it is something that happens on the field that gets you accepted in the dressing room and the fans get behind you even more. I do think that was the case with Borna. The St Mirren goal was such a big moment for him personally. And his consistency levels from there have been outstanding."