Moscow–Croatia’s compact side will combat England’s fast and direct football when they meet in the second semi-final of the FIFA World Cup with both teams aiming to recreate their own history by progressing to the title decider.
The Croats, basking in the afterglow of their golden generation of footballers, have reached the semi-finals for the second time in their brief history. They will aim to better the third-place finish achieved by the star-studded squad spearheaded by the legendary Davor Suker at the 1998 edition in France.
For England, it is a chance to reach the final for the first time since their World Cup winning campaign at home in 1966, more than a generation ago. They reached the last four stage for the last time in Italy back in 1990.
While Croats are in the semi-finals on the back of two knockout victories over Denmark and Russia via penalty shootouts, England got past Colombia and Sweden in the last two elimination matches.
“It’s the best opportunity that England’s ever had, and probably might ever have,” England defender Kyle Walker was quoted as saying by the FIFA’s official website.
“We have shown character, we’ve shown belief and I think that’s what is going to get us over the line in this game. I have to dream. I have to dream big,” he said ahead of the game at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Croatia have had an impressive campaign at this World Cup. They topped an extremely difficult group that included perennial title contenders Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.
On the other hand, England’s progression to the knockout rounds was far more easy — they defeated inexperienced sides like Tunisia and minnows Panama before losing to an impressive Belgium.
In Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Croatia have arguably the best midfield in Russia and the presence of star strikers Mario Mandzukic and Ante Rebic add some added force upfront.
Modric and Rakitic have also been protecting central defenders Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, who stand in front of experienced keeper Danijel Subasic.
While left-back Ivan Strinic is certain to start, Croatia’s preferred right-back Sime Vrsaljko is yet to fully recover from a knee injury suffered during the game against Russia. His absence would likely hand a start to Vedran Corluka in the center of defense alongside Lovren, shifting Vida to right-back.
Rebic, along with Andrej Kramaric and Ivan Perisic may feature ahead of the midfield duo of Modric and Rakitic. Mandzukic will lead Croatia’s attack. In case, Croatia go with three-man midfield, one of Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic may get a place.
Croatia have an experienced squad and will go into the match with the belief of going the distance.
“I agree Croatia has several more experienced players,” Juventus forward Mandzukic said.
“That will help us, but the chances are 50-50, I believe, because everybody deserves to be at the semi-final.”
Mandzukic helps out Zlatko Dalic-coached Croatia as their first defender and they will need his tireless running and his aerial positioning to beat an English team which relies a lot on set-pieces and attacking football.
Playing in a 3-5-2 formation, England are the third youngest team in the tournament and head coach Gareth Southgate has done his utmost to lower the expectations.
England does not boast of big names this time but there is a sense of bonhomie among the players and in Southgate, they have a coach who understands them.
Harry Kane is the leading goal-scorer in the tournament with six goals to his name and like his tally, most of England’s goals have come from corners and crosses from the wings.
Kane will be England’s main danger with the support of Raheem Sterling, while attacking midfielders like Ali and Jesse Lingard are good enough to trouble any opposition.
Much of England’s attacking prowess has depended on Sterling’s sizzling pace, which has also helped them to pose considerable threat on the counter.
There have been a lot of debate about whether Southgate should drop Sterling in favour of Marcus Rashford as the Manchester City forward is yet to score a goal in Russia. But despite his lean numbers, Sterling remains an important part of Gareth Southgate’s team with his clever runs from deep that open up rival defences and the chemistry he shares with his fellow forwards.
Jordan Henderson has been operating well in shielding the defence. With the Liverpool defensive midfielder also having improved his passing game, England are creating a lot of chances.
Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker will feature in a three-man defence ahead of fast-rising keeper Jordan Pickford, while Kieran Trippier has adjusted his role well as a wing-back, putting in a good shift in defending and joining the attack build-up.