Two dreams collide as Croatia meet England in the second semi-final at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Both teams will be looking to make history, with Croatia venturing into uncharted waters and England hoping to return to the final after fifty-two years.
Vatreni enter the clash with serious injury concerns after their quarter-final victory over Russia. It was a torrid affair, with goalkeeper Danijel Subasic seriously hampered in the second half, while Sime Vrsaljko and Mario Mandzukic battered from pillar to post. Their starting XI will be questionable right up until game time.
Conversely, things have rolled along smoothly for the Three Lions in this tournament. A relatively manageable group and a decent draw through the knockout phase has seen them arrive at this point with an excellent chance against an evenly matched opponent. England have looked defensively sturdy throughout and Gareth Southgate has implemented a simple, yet effective strategy to create chances up front. With Harry Kane as a focal point and minimising intrusion on his space to work, Southgate has assured his danger
and then focussed on capitalising from the set piece.
Both sides are capable of winning this match and it might all come down to fresher legs in the latter stages of the contest. England will feel confident in that area, yet Croatia are playing
with hearts on their sleeves and are more than capable of sending the English home without ‘it’.
Key Battle – Luka Modric vs Harry Kane
Luka Modric sat deep for part of the match against Russia and filled the hole nicely. His attacking influence is somewhat nullified when he plays in this way and when Croatia went searching for a match winner late in the game, he played much higher up the pitch. It is likely both teams will play boldly, with neither choosing to sit and counter during the tournament to this point. If Modric does play the more advanced role and Croatia do come at England, it will present a scenario with which the Three Lions have not faced too often in this competition.
It will present more opportunities between the lines than they have been afforded so far and it could spell danger for Croatia. Kane is the weapon and if Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli find some of that aforementioned space, their service to the striker could be the deciding factor on the night.
Jamie Vardy and Jordan Pickford were under minor injury clouds after the quarter-final, however, there is no way either ailment will keep them out of such a historically significant match for England.
Subasic and Vrsaljko will be tough calls for the Croatian management with risk-taking potentially proving disastrous against a fresh English side. Their young legs will be ready to test the depth and fitness of a team coming off two long and arduous encounters
The two nations have met seven times historically, yet not since 2009. That World Cup qualifier ended in a 5-0 thrashing for the English, as did the previous meeting a year earlier when Croatia were humbled 4-1.
Prior to these matches, there were mixed results, with Croatia having their moments in 2007 and 2008. A win at Wembley annoyed the English fans – still not convinced at the time of Vatreni’s growing depth and improvement that has eventually seen them arrive in a second World Cup semi-final.
Having tipped England for a top eight spot and seeing more in the changes that Gareth Southgate has brought to the culture than many others, I will not be jumping ship just yet. Croatia did look tired and wounded against Russia, but the relatively smooth passage the English have enjoyed, aside from the shootout with Colombia, could be a telling factor. Kane is close to sealing the golden boot title with Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku perhaps his only threat. Big players produce big things on the biggest stage and Kane will do exactly
that in this match. With Kyle Walker and John Stones holding the fort at the back, England will continue to ride the wave and move into the World Cup Final with a comfortable two goal win.
Croatia 0 England 2