Croatia vs England
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen), Nigeria 0
Argentina 0, Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Iceland 1 (Sigurðsson 76 pen), Croatia 2 (Badelj 53, Perišić 90)
Round of 16
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4), Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115), Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)
Tunisia 1 (Sassi 35 pen), England 2 (Kane 11, 90+1)
England 6 (Stones 8, 40, Kane 22 pen, 45+1 pen, 62, Lingard 36), Panama 1 (Baloy 78)
England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Round of 16
Colombia 1 (Mina 90+3), England 1 (Kane 57 pen) (a.e.t, England won 4-3 on penalties)
Sweden 0, England 2 (Maguire 30, Alli 59)
Croatia have kept the same system in all of their games, and although they have some injury concerns Zlatko Dalić is unlikely to change his 4-2-3-1 formation. With the team unlikely to change too much ahead of Croatia’s biggest game for 20 years, Dalić can focus on getting the best out of his players, who haven’t quite found their rhythm in two long and tiring penalty shootout victories. They have fought very hard, and there were positive signs in their win over Russia. Luka Modrić looked good in a deep midfield role, and Croatia’s front four of Ivan Perišić, Mario Mandžukić, Ante Rebić and Andrej Kramarić is very dangerous. Dalić’s biggest concern going in will be injuries to his defence, and Croatia may look to dominate possession to keep England out of the game. They have the talent, and if their high-level European players stand up they will have a very good chance of victory.
Like their opponents, the English haven’t made any changes to their system throughout the tournament. Gareth Southgate’s side is full of confidence, and their approach is based on pace and physicality. Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard are England’s key threats in open play, and both will look to slip in behind the Croatian defence. Then there’s England’s second, and more potent, threat: set pieces. Kieran Trippier has been brilliant, and his delivery (as well as Ashley Young’s) has been dangerous all tournament. Harry Maguire, John Stones and Harry Kane are rarely beaten in the air, and most of England’s goals at this tournament have come from corners, free-kicks or penalties derived from corners or free-kicks. Kane has profited from the penalty situation, and although England’s captain leads all scorers at this tournament he is yet to find his best form. If he can do that, England will be tough to beat. With a solid three-man defence of Kyle Walker, Stones and Maguire and a talented midfield of Lingard, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli, the English are a well-rounded side who can do some damage.
1. Who will feature in the Croatian defence?
Croatia’s gutsy quarter-final victory over Russia could have come at a heavy cost. Šime Vrsaljko is unlikely to take his place in the team, and goalkeeper Danijel Subašić is also doubtful after playing through a hamstring injury and saving a penalty in the shootout. With Dejan Lovren coming in under an injury cloud, there’s a chance that Croatia could go into the match with three significant defensive changes. Against a dangerous English attack with the all-round quality of Kane and the pace of Sterling and Lingard, this defensive upheaval could cost Croatia their place in the competition.
2. Can England go all the way?
The obvious answer to this question is yes. In the final four, and with a good chance of eliminating the Croatians, the English have the ability to win this tournament. Despite their success, however, it remains unclear how well they’ve played. Much of the support for the theory that England can win it all comes from the fact that they ended up in the softer side of the draw, avoiding powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France and Belgium. The flip side of this, however, is that the English are yet to prove themselves against top-level opposition. They did play Belgium in the group stage, but it’s worth noting that neither side was at full strength (and England’s reserves lost in a very dull match). In the knockouts, they played a Colombian side who made themselves too angry to play with any fluency and a Swedish team that, while disciplined, didn’t provide too much of a test. Croatia are different. They’re spirited, and very dangerous, and this game will give a good indication of whether England have the quality to beat the French should they go through.
3. Will fatigue be a factor?
Croatia and England couldn’t have had more different quarter-final wins. While England swept Sweden aside with contemptuous ease, Croatia battled hard and eventually eliminated Russia in a 120-minute slugfest and penalty shootout. Croatia come into this match off two shootout wins, and aside from the injury toll of their win over Russia they are not likely to be as mentally fresh as their opponents. It’s worth noting that England did go through a shootout of their own against Colombia, but it’s likely that they will have recovered from that difficult game and their preparation for this match will have been helped by their comfortable quarter-final victory. If Croatia can’t recover physically or mentally victory will be very difficult to achieve.
Luka Modrić has been central to Croatia’s hopes since his international debut in 2006, and he is still at the centre of their success 12 years on. He dictates the tempo of the game, he rarely makes a mistake and he is capable of playing a killer ball which can unlock a defence in a second. Complemented by the brilliance of Ivan Rakitić and the work of his dangerous attack, Modrić is the man England need to stop if they are going to progress to their first World Cup decider since 1966. The midfield is shaping as a key battleground, and if Modrić can take control in the centre then Croatia will go a long way to winning this match.
Raheem Sterling has all the weapons. He’s quick, he has good skills and he can threaten in wide areas and in the centre. He should be the kind of player who can breach any defence. Somehow, he can’t. Despite his best efforts, he hasn’t been able to add to his meagre tally of two international goals at this tournament, and he will be desperate to change that against Croatia. He has found himself in so many brilliant positions that his place is not under threat, and a goal in the semi-final could make all the questions about his performance for England go away.
Croatia’s front six is likely stay the same, with Kramarić excelling in the quarter-final after replacing Marcelo Brozović and the rest of the attack performing well. The defence, however, is a different question. Vrsaljko seems unlikely to start, and Domagoj Vida is likely to shift to the right of defence with Vedran Ćorluka set to take his place. Lovren should start, although should he fail to make it Duje Ćaleta-Car would come in to partner Ćorluka in central defence. The other question surrounds Subašić, who is in more serious doubt than Lovren. If the goalkeeper doesn’t start then Lovre Kalinić would be the most likely replacement, although Subašić’s form means that Dalić will be very unlikely to make a change unless the injury is very serious.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vida, Lovren, Ćorluka, Strinić; Modrić, Rakitić; Rebić, Kramarić, Perišić; Mandžukić.
Unlike their opponents, England have few selection worries. It would be surprising if Southgate was to tweak his side given his players’ performance against Sweden and the efficiency of his 3-5-2 formation throughout the tournament.
Possible Team (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson, Alli, Young; Kane, Sterling.
This game could be a very even contest, and the possibility of extra time and penalties is a very real one. Both sides have quality, and although Croatia are probably the more talented side they may struggle due to the settled nature of England’s team and the fatigue of two long and arduous knockout games. The deeper the game goes the better England’s chances will be due to their greater physical and mental freshness, but Croatia’s resolve to reach this point shouldn’t be underestimated and they are a very good chance of winning. England 2-1 (a.e.t).