Different strokes to paint England-Croatia clash
Both sides deploy contrasting methods to get the better of their opposition
Two contrasting styles will clash when England take on Croatia with both sets of players setting their eyes on what may be their first and final shot at the world championship. For almost all of them, this is realistically now or never. These English players grew up hearing about the class of 1966, immortal legends one and all, while the Croatians idolised the men of 1998, the magicians whose tricks an entire nation will never forget. In one fell swoop, they can surpass them — becoming bigger and greater than their own heroes could ever have dreamed of becoming.
England play direct football — they are dangerous and fast, and have been by far the deadliest team from set pieces so far. This is their first semi-final appearance since Italia 1990, 28 years ago; this team’s average age is 26.
Then there’s Croatia; masters of guile who know exactly when to move forward and when to defend. How can they not be, they are a team with Luka Modric at its beating heart. For them too this is a chance to make history; a first-ever final beckons.
England have come a long way since what the ‘national embarrassment’ of their 3-2 defeat to Croatia in November 2007. Over a decade later, these young footballers have made their country proud.
Now they can exorcise the demons of the past against Croatia’s golden generation.
The Three Lions have scored eight of their 11 goals from set-pieces, with tournament top-scorer Harry Kane having scored just one of his six goals from open play. There is certainly a pattern here.
England have scored eight goals from their 11 by set-pieces.
Some are downplaying this side’s achievements due to the quality of opposition they have so far faced, and against Croatia they have a chance to silence those critics.
They have been solid at the back, with Gareth Southgate’s decision to play five at the back working wonders so far as teams find it hard to account for the extra body at the back.
England have pace on their side, with Zlatko Dalic’s men having very few brisk players at his disposal. The likes of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingaard, or even Jamie Vardy off the bench, can wreak havoc against a Croatia team that may outthink England but may not be able to outrun them.
Much to the surprise of almost everyone, England are favourites to reach the World Cup final.
Key player: Harry Kane
Remember when Harry Kane was being accused of being a one-season wonder? Now he is England’s captain in a World Cup semi-final and overwhelming favourite to claim the golden boot.
At the team’s sole final point of attack, Kane is charged with finishing most of England’s chances and he has been ruthless in the box so far. Along the way he has ridden his luck but his ability to be in the right place at the right time cannot be discounted.
Kane became the first England player to score twice in a World Cup match since Gary Lineker against Cameroon in Italy in 1990.
Three of his goals have been from the spot; showing just how well he has kept his nerves. Under the added pressure of an entire nation’s expectations, many a great players have been known to bulk — just ask the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Modric, all of whom have missed penalties
Kane claimed the man of the match in England’s opening two games and will be hoping for a similar performance as he bids to lead England to a historic title.
Croatia’s golden generation can dare to dream now, among their ranks are some of the finest players at some of the world’s best clubs; Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Inter Milan and Juventus to name a few.
Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric have both been immense in the middle of the park, bossing the tempo of every Croatian game as Dalic’s men play the ball out slowly from the back. Up front, Mario Mandzukic provides them with the kind of physicality that has been known to trouble English defences in the past.
With a population of just over 4 million, Croatia will become the smallest European nation to play in a World Cup final if they qualify.
They have looked solid at the back but injury to right-back Šime Vrsaljko will come as a hammer blow to Dalic, especially considering the importance of wide men when taking on a formation with marauding wing-backs.
Fatigue may be a worry though, both physical and mental, after playing 120 minutes of football as well as penalties in both of their matches so far.
However, they are a balanced side that doesn’t need to rely solely on their physical prowess to get the better of the opposition.
Key player: Luka Modric
Modric is one of the best midfielders of his generation and just last month won his fourth Champions League title in the past five years with Real Madrid. Guide Croatia to the title or even the final and he becomes a genuine contender for the Ballon d’Or.
Modric is key to Croatian chances and the entire team revolves around this diminutive colossus. The Real man leads from the front on the pitch, giving everything he has in every single game and then giving some more after that too.
Croatia is the second-team in the history of the World Cup to face two penalty shoot-outs in a single campaign and winning both.
Such is Croatia’s dependence on Modric that he has been the man of the match in three of the five games that they have played.
How much is left in the tank after doing so much for both club and country remains to be seen but if Modric finds his range then don’t rule out Croatia playing in their first-ever World Cup final.
Story: Ali Mangi