It is quite incredible that this young, likeable England team are on the verge of reaching the World Cup final for the first time since 1966. It’s even more incredible that they have reached the final four without playing one of the top nations; without having to put in a single memorable performance. Looking at the quality of their opponents on Wednesday, Gareth Southgate’s side might not even need to up their game to reach the final. Croatia were seen as dark horses from the outset, and certainly after beating Argentina 3-0 they became a nation to be feared in Russia. However, the narrow (and somewhat fortunate) victory over Iceland in their final group game, followed by consecutive draws against Denmark and Russia, has made those predictions seem a little overblown. In truth, Argentina were disgracefully poor in defeat to Zlatko Dilic’s side. Croatia must improve dramatically if they are to progress at England’s expense.
Here are five reasons why England may get to the World Cup final:
1) Croatia’s exhaustion means England can race out of the blocks
Croatia have been through the physical and emotional trauma of consecutive penalty shootout victories in the knockout stages so far, which leaves them in a very vulnerable position ahead of Wednesday’s game. They will be considerably more tired than an England team that breezed past Sweden without having to fully exert themselves, something that was clearly apparent after seeing the Croatian players strewn across the turf at the final whistle in the quarter-finals.
Psychologically, they will be just as bereft – not only because of the nerves of the shootout but because they are yet to taste victory in the knockout stages. Penalty shootouts often come down to luck; Croatia won’t be feeling the same pride or confidence that is running through the England camp at the moment.
Consequently England can blow Croatia away if they race out of the blocks. The slick interchanges between Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling, and Dele Alli in the second half against Sweden were almost Manchester City-esque. Southgate’s men looked fluid and confident on the ball, sucking the opposition one way before quickly switching flanks. If they can perform like this in the first 20 minutes in Moscow Croatia won’t have the mental or physical energy to cope.
2) Croatia struggle to defend set-pieces
Three of the four goals Croatia have conceded at the World Cup have been set-pieces: a long throw-in, a penalty, and a corner. They were also consistently troubled by Iceland’s dead balls, suggesting that centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida aren’t good enough in the air. Luka Modric admitted after the Russia game, in which they conceded a late equaliser via a free header from a corner, that his team “have to improve”.
He’s not wrong. Eight of England’s ten goals in Russia have come from set-pieces, thanks to Southgate’s complex training-ground moves, Harry Kane’s ability to draw fouls, and Harry Maguire’s phenomenal aerial prowess. Every corner will cause a ripple of panic in the Croatian ranks. Russia’s simple corner goal may have been the result of their opponents’ sheer exhaustion, but similar tiredness will creep in as the game goes on and Croatia’s consecutive extra-times take their toll.
3) Maguire will fancy his chances against Mandzukic
Croatia’s creativity problems run deep. Only six nations at the World Cup have a lower shot-on-target percentage than Croatia’s 25.7; they have taken the second most shots from outside the box (40); and rank 17th for most touches in the box per game (12.53). England’s back three will feel pretty confident about blocking any desperate long-range strikes, which just leaves the aerial ability of lone striker Mario Mandzukic to deal with.
Harry Maguire’s heading has been a revelation this summer. Unsurprisingly, no defender at the World Cup has won more aerial duels than his 46, and the Leicester City centre-back has only got better as the tournament goes on, winning 12 against Colombia and 10 against Sweden. Along with John Stones, England will feel very confident about keeping Mandzukic quiet.
4) Shut down Modric and Croatia will be stumped
Much has been made of the controlled passing in midfield between Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, and yet the latter has not been particularly impressive so far in Russia. Many pundits had highlighted the importance of Ivan Perisic’s crossing for Mandzukic as a route to goal, and yet rarely have they combined.
Modric has arguably been the player of the tournament so far but the Real Madrid midfielder is struggling on his own. He completes twice as many key passes (2.9 per match) as any of his team-mates and is their top scorer – with just two goals. What this means is that England can afford to focus heavily on stunting Modric, perhaps by man-marking him out of the game, and be confident of securing victory.
5) Corluka and Lovren are vulnerable to Sterling’s runs
Sadly the English public appear to have decided Raheem Sterling isn’t very good. He consistently comes out at the bottom of the player ratings despite performing very well for England, making intelligent runs and dropping off cleverly to link the play. He continually stretched Sweden by driving beyond the defence, as well as keeping things ticking over with neat interchanges.
He can cause similar damage against Croatia’s slow defence. Both Vida and Lovren are leggy 29-year-olds, with neither particularly quick over ten yards or adept at dealing with forwards that play on the shoulder. Expect to see more of those clipped through balls from Jordan Henderson as Sterling stretches the Croatian back line.