In many ways, Croatia represent perfectly fitting opponents for England’s first World Cup semi-final in 28 years. Just like the Three Lions, they belong to the subsection of nations just outside world football’s trophy-laden elite, they’ve managed to completely surpass expectations throughout the course of this tournament and they’re now surrounded by a bubble of cautious, nervous optimism upon being handed their best ever chance to reach a World Cup final.
So it looks set to be a close-knit game, especially considering there really isn’t much to choose between both teams in terms of quality, but who will come out on top? Our experts, Football FanCast’s Sam Preston and Editor-in-Chief James Jones, share their thoughts, hopes, predictions and fears ahead of England’s biggest match for nearly three decades…
England no doubt deserve credit for reaching this stage of the World Cup, but it would be naive to ignore the relative simplicity of their route to the semi final. Croatia are easily the toughest side they’ve faced so far, and one of England’s only opponents who will look to control the match with the ball through their immensely talented midfield. So although Southgate’s 3-1-4-2 setup has got England this far, perhaps now is the time for the England gaffer to change up from his usual game-plan.
Would you make any changes to Southgate’s starting XI or keep it the same?
Sam: “I think Southgate’s loyalty to his top players has boosted their confidence so I would name an unchanged team at this stage. The obvious temptation is to remove Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard and replace them with a more conservative choice in Eric Dier, Fabian Delph or Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but this is not the time for backwards steps. Others may want to see Marcus Rashford come in for Raheem Sterling but the City man is a vital part of this team and I still believe he’ll produce a big performance to silence his critics at some point out in Russia.”
James: “I’ve said the same thing throughout the competition; don’t change a winning team. I think Gareth Southgate is pretty stubborn in that respect – apart from the Belgium game where there appeared to be method behind his madness. I see no reason why we should try to disrupt what has been working for us very well so far.”
It’s no secret that Croatia’s strongest credentials for this game lay in midfield. Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric give them one of the most talented and creative engine rooms in the entire World Cup, representing either side of the El Clasico rivalry, and the likes of Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic are pretty handy on the ball as well. Considering how open England’s midfield is, with Alli and Lingard spreading forward to leave Jordan Henderson as the lone anchor, Croatia could end up running amok in the middle of the park.
Which players will be crucial to stopping Modric and Rakitic take control of the game, and how should they go about it?
James: “I think this is the game where Alli can really shine here – if he can get behind Modric and Rakitic and expose that space in front of their defence, then the likes of Harry Kane and Sterling can make the runs to cause their very average backline some serious problems.”
Sam: “Southgate hinted yesterday that he expects Marcelo Brozovic to start in midfield here, which creates a 3v3 in the middle up against Alli, Lingard and Henderson. Their energetic pressing will be key to stopping Croatia controlling the game and Sterling may also be able to drop in and overwhelm Croatia’s midfield trio. England strolled through against Sweden, while their opponents endured a second straight extra time period, and that extra energy is the key to disrupting Modric and Rakitic.”
Aside from Modric and Rakitic, which Croatia players could cause England the biggest problems?
Sam: “Mario Mandzukic is the obvious goal threat, but he is a slow and limited player who will only cause problems if he can peel onto Kyle Walker and isolate him in the air. Ante Rebic out on the right up against Ashley Young is the biggest worry, for me. He doesn’t get involved often in build-up but powers in with direct running and will look to exploit any space between Young and Harry Maguire. Then again, he’s not been the most dangerous player out in Russia and England should be able to control him.”
James: “Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic are their obvious threats going forward and we’ll need to be wary of how they can cause us problems in the defensive phase, but we’ve been pretty good defensively so far and I think we have more than enough to nullify them.”
For all the talk of formations, potential changes and style of play, sometimes matches of this magnitude simply reduce to which side comes out on top in the key battles – whether that’s centre-back against centre-forward or wing-back versus winger – or dominates one crucial dynamic of the game.
Where will this game be lost and won?
James: “As previously mentioned, if we can find a way of stopping Modric and Rakitic controlling the game then we’ll be fine. They’re Croatia’s key to success and if we can get in behind them and expose the space they leave, we’ll be in a good position to win the game.”
Sam: “I’ve seen Croatia a few times in this tournament and I’ve yet to see them settle on a formation or a line-up that ensures their undoubted technical quality in midfield links up dangerously with their attack. They are still looking for that balance. If they find it, Rakitic and Modric could pass England onto a carousel and make it a long evening, but if they don’t Southgate’s men should be able to overwhelm Croatia in midfield, then use Sterling’s pace to disrupt Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida.”
And finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions…
Sam: “I’ve been confident all week but seeing Belgium get knocked out has hammered home just how plausible it is that England could lose here. That said, I genuinely don’t see a great deal to be scared of in Croatia. Their midfield quality didn’t translate into dominance against Russia or Denmark so I fancy England’s chances here. Another 2-0 win, this time with Sterling to finally arrive out in Russia and silence the doubters. It’s coming home.”
James: “This is a World Cup semi-final and I never thought I’d ever be asked to predict the final score of one that involves England, but here we are. 2-1 England. I don’t care who scores, I just want to see England in a World Cup final.”