Josko Gvardiol turned 21 on January 23 but the transition from being world football’s most promising young defender to one of the best in the business happened seamlessly.
Whether for Bundesliga club RB Leipzig or the Croatia national team, Gvardiol is the name you will find in the playing XI. His swag, defensive skills, passing ability — being left-footed it looks all the more pleasing to the eye — and confidence, while his team is on the attack, make him a player who stands tall in a crowd of young and talented footballers.
Wednesday was another example of how far the defender has come. Trailing 1-0 against Manchester City at home in the first-leg of the round-of-16 game, thanks to Riyad Mahrez’s delightful volley, Leipzig needed something special to pull even.
And Gvardiol was the man who came to the rescue. Marcel Halstenberg swung over a left-wing corner and Gvardiol leapt above Ruben Dias to head it into the unguarded net. City goalkeeper Ederson was caught in no man’s land, on the sidelines. City manager Pep Guardiola, who has a similarity to the defender’s last name, could only watch in dismay.
The 1-1 score gives Leipzig a chance to dream about upsetting Manchester City when they meet for the second-leg action on March 14. This was Gvardiol’s second goal in the Champions League, having scored against Real Madrid in the group-stage 3-2 win in October last year. Those days he was wearing a face mask after sustaining an injury during a Bundesliga match. On Wednesday, the mask was gone and the beaming face of the youngster after he scored flashed on giant screens at the Red Bull Arena.
Before the World Cup last year, The Telegraph had asked Igor Stimac, Croatia’s 1998 World Cup hero and present India national team coach, about Gvardiol. “Wonderful left foot with good speed and strength,” he had said.
In Doha, Gvardiol was one of the best defenders. Against Belgium (group match) and Japan (last-16 game), he was brilliant and during the memorable quarter-final victory over Brazil, barring that slip which enabled Neymar to make it 1-0, Gvardiol was spotless.
Yes, against Argentina in the semi-finals, Lionel Messi gave him a class on what it takes to mark the world’s best player. The Argentina captain literally toyed with him before teeing up with Julian Alvarez for the third goal. “He’s the best player I’ve had to defend against so far,” Gvardiol would say later.
Europe’s top clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool and Real Madrid are competing with each other for Gvardiol’s signature. It’s a matter of time before Leipzig say goodbye to their prized possession.