Duro Ikhazuagbe in St Petersburg
This evening at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Zlatko Dalic is unlikely to be surprised by Gareth Southgate’s team selection as the second semi final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup between Croatia and England begins at 7pmNigerian time.
England has no reported injury concerns and Southgate is not expected to depart from the consistent starting XI he has maintained to this stage.
The Three Lions have shown they can adapt to the different styles of play they faced here at Russia 2018 and against a Croatia with a robust midfield, they’ll focus on containing and overcoming Luka Modric and his dangerous middlemen.
Croatia believes it can deal with Harry Kane after ‘stopping Messi’ in the group stages. Dalic also undoubtedly believes in his team, but how much more energy do his players have left? The Vatreni have played 240 minutes in six days and exhausted players pose the biggest problem for the Croatia coach.
Also, Dalic’s side has scored nine goals so far, with eight different goal scorers contributing. That is great for Dalic, but the coach is undoubtedly looking for a greater contribution from his forwards for this team to surpass the feat of their 1998 ‘Golden Generation.’
England on the other hand has been one of the surprise packages at the 2018 finals, earning their semis ticket with a 2-0 win over Sweden in Samara on Saturday. Goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli – as well as a couple of excellent saves from Jordan Pickford – secured their place in the final four for the first time since 1990.
Southgate’s ‘Three Lions’ have shown tactical flexibility, athleticism, speed and a fine defensive discipline in their campaign, and they will fancy their chances of securing victory in the Russian capital city.
The England manager says his team has a chance to become heroes in the same vein as their legendary 1966 team.
“We’ve talked, touched briefly, certainly, on the team which won,” said Southgate. “How they’re still held and revered.
“(It was) at the beginning of working together with the lads and trying to sell them the vision of what’s possible, what we’re looking to achieve in the long-term.
“We have had events on in camp when some of those guys have been in, when the road was named at St George’s (Park) after Sir Alf.
“I’ve met quite a few of those players and we know exactly how they’re held and perhaps, in the modern era, that would be even crazier.”
While Luka Modric will once again be key for Croatia in his ability to dictate the play, the Eastern Europeans will also need Dejan Lovren to be at his best against Harry Kane – the defender was famously pulled off while playing for Liverpool against Kane’s Tottenham in the previous season and will be eager to avoid a repeat.
Dalic has backed his side to deal with the threat of Kane, the tournament’s leading scorer with six strikes.
“But we believe in our strengths,” stressed the Croatian coach. “We don’t fear England.”
The manager added, “He (Kane) is top scorer – he’s not easy to stop. But we have top centre-backs. We managed to stop Messi and (Christian) Eriksen so hopefully we can stop Kane.”
For England, the pace and movement of Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli will be vital – Croatia have a habit of leaving a gap between midfield and defence, and the English pair will look to exploit this space at every opportunity.
In head-to-head terms, England and Croatia have met in seven previous matches, according to FIFA’s statistics database. The ‘Three Lions’ have claimed four wins compared to two for ‘The Blazers’, while one game has been drawn.
This will be the teams’ first World Cup finals meeting, while their last match overall was a World Cup qualifier in September 2009 which England won 5-1 at home.
MATCHES PLAYED ( 7)
4 – 2
18 – 10
ROAD TO SEMI
*Croatia really announced themselves in this World Cup with a stunning 3-0 victory over Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the group stage, with goals from Ante Rebic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
*They topped the very tricky Group D after a 2-1 win over England’s Euro 2016 nemesis Iceland and a 2-0 victory over Nigeria.
*Despite struggling to break down a stubborn Denmark defence and a missed penalty from star man Modric, Croatia eventually prevailed in the last-16 via penalties, and then repeated the trick in the epic 2-2 quarter-finals draw against hosts Russia. The Barcelona man Rakitic slotted the winning spot-kick for Croatia’s second semi final appearance since 1998.
*This is only Croatia’s second appearance in the World Cup knockout rounds, having been part of Yugoslavia before gaining independence in 1991.
*Goals have been shared around the team, with eight different players finding the net so far: Rebic, Modric, Rakitic, Milan Badelj, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic, Andrej Kramaric and Domagoj Vida (plus a Oghenekaro Etebo own goal in the Nigeria game.)
*The journey began with a last-minute winner against Tunisia in the opening group match before storming to a 6-1 victory over Panama, their biggest ever win at any major tournament.
*However, after losing 1-0 to Belgium, England finished as group runners-up, meaning they faced Colombia in the knock-outs.
*Although England lost, they found themselves in arguably the easier half of the draw. It took some nail biting penalty drama – Jordan Pickford’s heroics in goal and a cool strike from Eric Dier – to progress. But Gareth Southgate’s side were through and faced Sweden in the quarter finals.
*England got a pair of headed goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli to defeat Sweden 2-0 in their quarter-final contest in Samara for Three Lions’ first appearance in the last four since Italy 1990.