For England to stand any chance of finally bringing football home this summer, they’ll have to first get past Croatia in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final.
It looks set to be a delicately poised match; both teams entered this tournament as underdogs to the world’s historic elite but for varying reasons now find themselves surrounded by hope, optimism and to some extent expectation.
But can history tell us anything about this fixture? How could the referee influence the match? Who has endured the hardest route to the semi final and what will England’s starting XI look like? Here’s everything you need to now before the 7pm kickoff…
Neither England nor Croatia are accustomed to this stage of the competition. In fact, they’ve reached just three semi-finals previously between them, just one of which has been successful – of course, England’s famous triumph in 1966. On paper though, all signs point to England being the stronger side.
While Croatia famously ended England’s European Championship qualification hopes back in 2008, courtesy of Steve McClaren and Scott Carson, the Three Lions have picked up twice as many wins from their meetings down the years. Likewise, England are currently eight places higher in the FIFA rankings – although if this World Cup has taught us anything, it’s that they really don’t mean much.
In all honesty, England probably couldn’t have been given a worse referee for Wednesday’s huge clash. Cuneyt Cakir has real history when it comes to English-based clubs and English players, having already sent off three throughout his career – John Terry, Gary Cahill and Steven Gerrard – despite being based in Turkey.
Add in the fact he’s also sent off seven players from English teams compared to none from the opposition they’ve faced, including Manchester United’s Nani in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final Champions League clash, and it’s pretty obvious the 41-year-old doesn’t take kindly to the physicality of English football.
That’s only backed up by Cakir’s performances so far at this World Cup. He’s issued nine yellow cards in just two games and averaged the second-most fouls per match of any official at the tournament – which is no surprise considering he’s awarded almost exactly one foul for every tackle.
The negative is that England will need to be far more cautious than usual in attempting to win the ball; the positive is that they’ve scored the most goals from set pieces of any team at this World Cup. In theory then, the more challenges Croatia make, the more opportunities England will have to score.
Croatia have never quite recovered the potent pomp of their opening World Cup outings, despite the quality of their opposition arguably reducing in the knockout stages. On paper, the likes of Nigeria and Argentina should pose a greater challenge than Denmark and Russia, but both of those underdog sides took the Balklans outfit to penalty shootouts.
Their lack of quality posed some real problems for Croatia, suddenly finding themselves asked to break down deep-sitting defences. But perhaps the real story here is how impressive Croatia have been at the back – conceding just thrice, and only once from open play, in five games.
In contrast to Croatia, England have already tasted defeat at this tournament, losing to Belgium in a Group Stage clash that ironically gave Gareth Southgate’s side a much easier route to this round of the World Cup.
The Three Lions did, however, make much lighter work of Sweden compared to Croatia’s draws with Denmark and Russia, and were in full control of the Colombia clash barring a last-minute goal that completely corroded their composure for the first half of extra time.
But that penalty shootout hoodoo has finally been lifted, and England have already matched their highest scoring return at a World Cup (11) with at least one more game to spare.
Southgate’s widely expected to stick with the same starting XI that beat Sweden, simply because of how effective those players have proved within the confines of his 3-1-4-2 setup.
And that objective has received an almighty boost with the England boss confirming he now has a clean bill of health for Wednesday’s game, following previous doubts over Jamie Vardy and Jordan Henderson.
Losing the Liverpool captain would have been a bitter blow for England – he’s dominated the entire midfield single-handed for much of the tournament, giving Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard the freedom to roam further forward.
Some have speculated whether one of the Tottenham and Manchester United pair would be sacrificed to bring a more defensive or balanced element to the midfield through Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Eric Dier to counteract the quality of Croatia’s engine room, but change-ups now seem unlikely.
Another potential switch was on the left flank, but after assisting against Sweden, United’s Ashley Young has likely done enough to fend off competition from Spurs defender Danny Rose for the left wing-back berth.