As England progressed through their World Cup quarter-final with Sweden with an uncanny sense of ease, they set themselves up for their first semi-final in 28 years. Such a vital and historic match will be played on Wednesday evening, a whole country eager to find out if they can get one step closer to making this year’s adopted slogan of “football’s coming home” a reality.
They will come up against a Croatia side that have displayed differing form in this tournament, yet cannot be accused of being anything other than tenacious after winning consecutive penalty shoot-outs in their two knockout matches versus Denmark and Russia. Indeed, Zlatko Dalic’s men were at their best in a 3-0 group stage win versus Argentina, a game in which Real Madrid star Luka Modric shone brightly, scoring a wonderful goal to cap a magnificent performance.
Yet back-to-back matches that have culminated in extra time and penalties could see England’s opponents suffering from fatigue, a factor that certainly must be capitalised upon by Gareth Southgate’s young squad who should be much fresher. Croatia will also be missing Sime Vrsaljko after the Atletico Madrid full-back limped out of the match with Russia following a series of excellent performances in this tournament so far.
It seemed like a strange move when Dalic preferred Andrej Kramaric to Marcelo Brozovic in their quarter-final starting XI, the latter having been deployed a deep midfield role which in turn allowed teammate Modric to occupy the space further forward. Brozovic had occupied this space in front of the defence to great effect for Internazionale in the closing stages of the Serie A campaign, and the Croatia boss seemed to realise his error when he reverted to his earlier choice just after the hour mark versus Russia.
Brozovic looks set to start versus England, but the forward line in Croatia’s 4-2-3-1 has often looked laboured in their previous matches. Mario Mandzukic occupies the number nine role but is no longer an out-and-out striker, often looking to battle to win back the ball and lay on chances for others just like in his club role for Juventus.
Ivan Perisic has so far failed to capture anything like the kind of domestic form displayed for Inter and – even with the addition of a confident Ante Rebic on the other flank – Croatia just do not seem to have enough to really trouble England’s back three. Any threat looks more likely to come from midfield duo Ivan Rakitic and the aforementioned Modric, but Southgate will be all-too-aware of this when making his plans.
Meanwhile, Jamie Vardy remains a doubt for the Three Lions and Jordan Henderson suffered a slight groin problem following the win over Sweden, however, the latter looks set to recover as the English boss will likely name an unchanged line-up. It may seem significant that Croatia come in at an average of 3.5 cm taller than their semi-final opponents, however, England have a better aerial success rate of 62% rather than 58%, showing that determination could well see them overcome The Blazers’ height advantage.
This match cannot come around soon enough for many who have never seen England progress beyond the World Cup semi-finals in their lifetime. It will be a monumental clash – one that could see this young side appear in the final on Sunday – and an outcome that could not have been imagined before the tournament kicked off. Croatia are certainly a beatable team, however, England will have to be at their very best to overcome them.
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