Rakitic aiming to prove he's the man for the big occasion as Sevilla target Europa glory
"For the time being, I only think about Sevilla," said Ivan Rakitic when speaking to FourFourTwo back in January. "I have important matches ahead of me and additional responsibilities as captain of the team, so leaving is not something I'm considering now."
The Croatian has been proved correct, as on Wednesday evening he will line up in Turin for the biggest match of his career - the Europa League final against Benfica. It’s a fitting finale to an outstanding season, during which he has scored 12 league goals and provided 10 assists.
The playmaker has revelled in the extra responsibility handed to him by Unai Emery; the former Valencia coach gave him the armband at the start of the campaign. "Ivan takes on a lot of responsibility, but we can't just allow him to do everything," Emery said before the Europa League quarter-final second leg win over Porto.
It was Rakitic's penalty that opened the scoring in that game, as the playmaker was instrumental once more. The midfielder may have only scored one goal in the competition, but Sevilla have spread the goals around, producing eight different scorers throughout their European campaign.
Date of birth: March 10, 1988
Place of birth: Mohlin, Switzerland
Height: 6ft 0in
Former clubs: FC Basel, Schalke 04
Current club: Sevilla; 145 apps, 34 goals
Country: Croatia; 60 apps, 9 goals
Honours: Swiss Cup 2007, German Cup 2011
As a coach, Emery likes to rotate not just his players, but his formations too. He wants adjustable personnel that are tactically aware, and although some find his methods and personality a little intense, Rakitic has thrived in a variety of central midfield roles thanks to his growing confidence.
Rakitic is similar in style to international team-mate Luka Modric, but the former is slightly stronger physically. Only three players in La Liga have made more key passes per match than Rakitic this season, with his eye for a through-ball particularly exquisite. His ability from set-pieces also ensures he is capable of creating something in tight matches, even when he can't find space on the ball in open play.
Sevilla lost numerous players last summer, including their central midfield pairing of Gary Medel and Geoffrey Kondogbia. "It's all very impressive because I've never seen so many changes. I don't know how many players have arrived and how many have left," explained Rakitic to the official UEFA website.
In La Liga this season, Rakitic has scored four goals in Sevilla’s three away matches at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough, he also moved position.
At Camp Nou, he was in the number 10 role in a 4-2-3-1; at the Bernabeu, he was part of a midfield four alongside Stephane Mbia in a 5-4-1; then at the Vicente Calderon, he moved back into the hole in a 4-2-3-1.
The opening 10 matches of the domestic season saw Rakitic play in three positions and in three different formations, scoring seven goals in the process.
In behind a striker, he roams between the lines looking to link up the midfield and attack. He has played over half his matches in this role and it's not surprising that it's when he is at his most creative. As he did in the Seville derby, providing two assists.
When positioned in a 4-4-2 - as he was against Getafe - he fulfils the box-to-box obligation, often alongside a more physical tackler. His positional sense means he is able to intercept and then carry the ball up the field. The work-rate and fitness levels on display are superb, which makes it look effortless.
As a defensive midfielder, he can operate as a deep-lying playmaker or slightly ahead of a natural blocker. Although his statistics are less impressive, it's here that he has provided a better overall game. In the team's 4-1 win over Rayo Vallecano he was excellent at both ends of the pitch.
It's this versatility that has attracted the attention of Liverpool, Manchester United and Real Madrid, among others. Although he has a Spanish wife, Rakitic hasn't entirely ruled out the possibility of a move to England.
"Anything is possible," he told FFT earlier this year. "However, family is now the most important thing to me and it will have a key role in all my future professional decisions."
Emery's rotation policy attracted criticism when Rakitic was left out of the league match with Athletic Bilbao, a fixture sandwiched between the two legs of the semi-final. Sevilla were three points off the Basque side, who were occupying the final Champions League slot. The Andalusians’ top four hopes disappeared with the subsequent 3-1 defeat.
Rakitic has played just 237 minutes of La Liga action since the start of April, while he has missed just four minutes of Sevilla’s four Europa League matches in the same period.
He is likely to play as a trequartista in a 4-2-3-1 against Benfica, but no matter where he is deployed, Rakitic won't let Los Nervionenses down.
"The final will be remembered, so you have to do your best and give this club another trophy and make history – that's the best thing there is," says Rakitic. The finale in Italy is certainly the perfect stage for the 26-year-old to show he is ready to step up.