19:00 BST, Wednesday 11th July, Luzhniki Stadium (Moscow, Russia), ITV
Croatia and England find themselves in unfamiliar territory. A World Cup semi-final is an uncommon occasion for both sides; Croatia were last here in 1998, whilst England reached the last four most recently in 1990.
This is the first time since Croatia made the semi-final in France that they have emerged from the group stages, falling at the first hurdle in every edition since, minus the 2010 tournament which they failed to qualify for.
The history makes for equally painful reading for the English. Since the 1990 run, the Three Lions have only reached as far as the quarter-finals – in 2002 and 2006 – but their record has been on a downward spiral ever since.
Few would have given these two sides much of a chance in Russia, especially after poor Euro 2016 campaigns. Both have overachieved so far and both will see this as a winnable game.
Last Time Out
Russia 2-2 Croatia [Croatia win 4-3 on penalties]
In a quarter-final match up that few would have had on their pre-tournament wallcharts, hosts Russia faced the Croats in the final last eight match.
Emerging star Denis Cheryshev opened the scoring with one of the goals of the tournament – his left-footed curling effort from outside the penalty area beating Danijel Subasic, who could only watch the ball fly past him. The hosts’ lead, though, only held for eight minutes when Andrej Kramaric found space amid loose marking to head home and bring his side level.
Time ticked away as both sides searched for the winner, though the breakthrough didn’t come until the first period of extra time. Croatia defender Domagoj Vida headed through a sea of bodies to put his side back in the lead.
Read five things we learned from Croatia’s penalty win over the hosts HERE.
With only five minutes of extra time remaining, Mario Fernandes rose unmarked to head home a free-kick to send the game to penalty kicks. Fernandes went from hero to zero, however, as his – and Russia’s second – miss in the shootout gave Ivan Rakitic the chance to send Croatia through to the last four, which he took.
Sweden 0-2 England
Gareth Southgate’s England side kept up their fine run of performances in their 2-0 win over Sweden. The Swedes were fresh from eliminating a stubborn Switzerland side, whilst England were forced to go all the way to a penalty shootout to get past Colombia.
England started brightly, dominating possession but not creating anything clear-cut. Sweden weathered the early storm and slowly grew into the game.
Read five things we learned from England’s quarter-final victory HERE.
The deadlock was broken by the men in red from yet another set-piece, an area in which Southgate’s side have been abnormally strong in Russia. Harry Maguire rose to power home ahead of his marker to give England a deserved lead.
As the game drew on, there was no obvious route for Sweden to get back into the game. A lack of pace up front and bite in midfield allowed England to have a firm grip on proceedings, and when Dele Alli peeled off to the back post to head a Jesse Lingard cross beyond Robin Olsen, the task became all the more difficult.
Jordan Pickford came to England’s rescue, though, on three occasions, most notably from a Marcus Berg header shortly after half-time. Despite the close calls, Southgate’s side held on comfortably to book their place in the last four.
Zlatko Dalic began with a 4-2-3-1 system against Russia, but were poor until introducing Marcelo Brozovic. This allowed Modric and Rakitic to push forward knowing that Brozovic was there to protect them.
As such, Dalic could revert to the 4-1-4-1 that saw them through the group stage. The only change is that Sime Vrsaljko has been ruled out of the semi-final, which means veteran defender Vedran Corluka is likely to start in his absence.
Despite certain, perhaps unfair, remarks of criticism aimed at Raheem Sterling, manager Gareth Southgate will have no reason to change a winning team.
Kieran Trippier has been a standout player for England so far as has the defensive duo of John Stones and Harry Maguire.
As the games grow increasingly more important, it’s unlikely that Dele Alli will be dropped for the lesser experienced Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whilst replacing Ashley Young for Danny Rose would be harsh.
Key Battle: Luka Modric (Croatia) vs Jordan Henderson (England)
The importance of the midfield battle in this fixture is undeniable. Luka Modric has played a huge part in the success of his Croatia side in attack, creating chances and delivering defence-splitting passes all tournament.
Modric has stepped up for his country from the spot on multiple occasions, and his goal against Argentina will live long in the memory.
Modric’s control of a midfield is his trademark ability, and if England are to control proceedings, Jordan Henderson will be in for a tiring night.
It remains to be seen whether Southgate may shuffle his pack to counteract the midfield threat from Modric and partner Ivan Rakitic, with Henderson playing the role of the defensive midfielder alone so far.
Henderson has been as important to England as any other player so far, but Modric will know his class and passing ability may give his side the upper hand in the middle of the park.
Southgate to stick with the plan?
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as the saying goes. Will it hold true for the Three Lions on Wednesday? Croatia have a more experienced and arguably more talented midfield, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pulling the strings as they have done for many years.
Nullifying their threat will be half the job for Southgate’s men in this game, but with Henderson operating as a single holding midfielder, will the England manager be tempted to provide extra protection for his defence?
The solution could be drafting Eric Dier into the team for one of Jesse Lingard or Alli, but creativity will be sacrificed as a result, with England playing a system that isn’t as familiar. England’s system has worked well so far, and Southgate has stuck to his guns and what he believes works, but will this game be one step too far for the current arrangement?
Do Croatia have the stamina?
The Croatians head into this game having played 120 minutes in each of their last two matches. Whilst the talent and ability is clear, Croatia have arguably struggled to get past opponents that many, on paper, would expect them to dispatch inside 90 minutes.
Denmark were a stubborn opponent in the last-16, and hosts Russia took them all the way on Saturday evening.
Croatia are doing just about enough, but having been through two shootouts, are they living on borrowed time? This Croatia side is ageing: Modric and Rakitic are 30 and 31, respectively, with forwards Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic 32 and 29.
With England having the younger, more energetic team, will the recent mileage catch up with the more senior players on Wednesday?
Prediction: Croatia 1-2 England [AET]
A close, tough to call game – just as a semi-final should be.
England will be full of confidence having gone much further in Russia than many expected, and will see this semi-final matchup as a great chance to reach an unexpected final. The problem for Southgate’s side, though, is that the Croats will think the same thing.
Never had a team survived two shootouts at a World Cup – before the win over Russia – but the extra minutes will affect the older legs in the Croatia side. England will know the quality the Croatia midfield possess, so too the aerial threat up front, so the margins here will be fine.
Having gone all the way in their two previous games, the prospect of another high-energy, high-octane game against an energetic England side may be one match too many, just. 2-1 England.
Listen to the RealSport football writers preview all the action ahead of the World Cup semi-finals in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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