England are now just one more win away from reaching a first World Cup final since 1966, but standing in their way are a Croatia side with an equally inspiring underdog story to tell.
While Croatia have reached this stage of the competition before, they’re yet to go one better and view a Golden Generation involving Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic as their greatest opportunity to do so.
It looks set to be a cagey match between two teams incredibly similar in terms of ability and expectations, but what will be the ultimate factor? Football FanCast take a look at where Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final will be lost and won.
With first-choice right-back Sime Vrsaljko reportedly ruled out for Wednesday’s semi-final, England have been presented a key opportunity to target a weak link in a backline that has thus far conceded just once from open play at the World Cup. Centre-half Domagoj Vida looks set to move across to the No.2 berth and while he’s relatively comfortable there having played the position several times before, he’s not the most natural of fits either – slower than he once was at the age of 29 and far from spectacular on the ball.
That should limit Croatia’s capacity to attack down the right-hand side but it should also encourage England to target the same flank as well, which leaves Gareth Southgate facing a difficult question; whereas Ashley Young’s performed fantastically so far at the World Cup, Danny Rose has the pace and natural left foot to speed around the outside of Vida and whip balls into Harry Kane. Either way, the change-up should create enough uncertainty and subsequently space for England to get some joy.
Croatia stand out from the rest of the opposition England have faced so far at this World Cup because of one key differential – not only their willingness but also their ability to control possession. That stems from a vastly talented midfield, particularly El Clasico duo Modric and Rakitic who give them the technical quality to orchestrate attacks from deep-lying positions or burst forward to score goals from the edge of the box.
For a midfield as open as England’s, which leaves Jordan Henderson marshalling a sizeable pocket single-handed behind Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli in more advanced roles, that could prove to be a real problem. But it could create issues for Croatia too; as talented as Modric and Rakitic are, they won’t want to spend the game tracking back, keeping up with two midfielders who are much younger and more mobile than them.
So the midfield battle can be reduced to quite simply which engine room best imposes itself on the other. If Alli and Lingard spend their energy trying to close down Modric and Rakitic, they’ll eventually end up pinned back and unable to roam forward on the break. But if they’re brave enough to make runs off the back of the Croatia pair, Modric and Rakitic will play more towards their goal than England’s.
In that sense, the Manchester United and Tottenham stars have the most important roles in this Three Lions team for Wednesday’s clash.
No side has scored more goals from set pieces at this World Cup than England with five from as many games, and in a match as cagey as a World Cup semi-final that could prove to be decisive – one corner or foul won in a dangerous area could end up being all the difference.
Croatia’s record at defending them though, conceding just twice at this World Cup, certainly isn’t bad considering the amount of football they’ve played, and moving Vida over to right-back will only add to the height within the team. Likewise, after conceding one of those goals last time out against Russia, it’s pretty obvious coach Zlatko Dalic will be devoting a large proportion of his training sessions to limiting England’s potency from set pieces as much as possible.
But whether it’s enough to stop an England side who have scored five from set pieces and won a further two penalties off them through overzealous marking remains to be seen. In Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and John Stones the Three Lions have some fantastic aerial targets.
Bearing in mind the aforementioned quality Croatia possess in midfield, Ruben Loftus-Cheek could have a crucial influence from the bench on Wednesday night – especially if Alli and Lingard end up running themselves ragged trying to keep a leash on Croatia’s creative duo.
The Chelsea youngster offers that likewise threat going forward but is strong and sturdy as well, so if Southgate needs him to sit a little deeper later on in the game, he’s naturally better suited than his Manchester United and Tottenham counter-parts while still offering something in attack.
For Croatia, meanwhile, Andrej Kramaric is the forward who really changes the shape of the team – whether it’s a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, with the Hoffenheim striker playing just behind Mario Mandzukic.
He grabbed a goal against Russia last time out, which will give the one-time Leicester man huge confidence, but the main issue Kramaric creates is how his sheer presence will give England another goalscoring threat in the box.