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“It’s not a great date, somebody’s Christmas is going to be ruined” joked Ivan Rakitic while visiting Zagreb this week.

He was speaking to local daily Sportske Novostiv about El Clásico, which this year falls just two days ahead of December 25.

“We have wonderful memories of games in Madrid” he added. “And we have a great chance of winning this time. It would be an amazing way to end the year.”

Chelsea a long way off

The midfielder was also quizzed about a Champions League draw that’s thrown up what he describes as some ‘fascinating ties’, including a match-up for Barça with Chelsea.

“Ours is one of the most interesting pairings” he said. “It’s hard to know what will happen because it’s a long way off, but that means we have a lot of time to get ready. For now, we just have to take things a game at a time, and make sure we win them.”

The absence of Neymar Jr in the Barça squad was another talking point, but ‘the rocket’, as Rakitic is known back home, insists that “you could have the ten best players in the world but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be the best team. We have managed to compensate for his departure through teamwork and acting as a unit. We all work hard for each other, and that’s what wins us games.”

Naturally, the Croatian press was also keen to get their compatriot’s opinion on the World Cup draw, where their side has been grouped with Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland.

“The group could be easier” he commented. “We have some tough opponents, but we’re a strong team too and know we have a good chance. We are going to Russia with the intention of making our mark on the tournament.”

Buffon returns gesture

However, Rakitic recently said that he’d be willing to give up his place at next summer’s finals if it meant Gianluigi Buffon could go instead. The veteran goalkeeper, whose Italy team failed to qualify, jokingly responded that he wasn’t sure how well he’d fit into the Croatia midfield, but as a gesture of gratitude, kindly offered to give Rakitic his shirt after the Juventus game against Barça.

So, did this happen?

“Yes, he was waiting for me in the dressing room afterwards with a special note” revealed the Barça star.

Another wonderful example of how once players are off the field, all rivalries are put aside to be replaced by nothing but mutual respect.
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