World Cup Semifinal: England, Croatia have come furthest for either since the 90s; who will go the distance?
If football is to take another step on its journey home, England must find a way past their toughest opponents yet. They take on Croatia in Moscow tonight.
In seven previous meetings between the two sides, England have won four and lost twice against Croatia. The two sides haven’t met since the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup when England exorcised the demons of their 3-2 Wembley defeat against the Croats in 2007 with 4-1 and 5-1 wins.
History counts for little when the referee blows his whistle, though. Both sides go into the semifinal evenly matched and desperate to make the final.
It is the first time England have found themselves in this position since 1990. Only a handful of Gareth Southgate's squad were alive when Chris Waddle skied his penalty against the Germans in Turin. Fabian Delph allegedly threw his pacifier out of the crib.
Southgate’s men booked their place in the semi-final with an unnervingly formulaic 2-0 victory over Sweden in Samara on Saturday. After the heart-racing drama of their penalty shootout success against Colombia, it was nice, if not a little surreal, for England to make such light work of an opponent.
Croatia's last semi-final was in 1998, their first World Cup as an independent nation. They lost to eventual winners France. Not the most encouraging bit of trivia for England fans.
Luka Modric and friends struggled to shake off an industrious Russia side who dogged them for 120 minutes before Ivan Rakitic finally managed to finish off the weary beast with a coolly taken penalty in the shootout.
Here's how the two sides shape up for this one.
There is something different about this Three Lions side compared to previous teams. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for their success. Maybe it is Gareth Southgate's brilliant man-management. Or could it be the youthful exuberance of a side unfamiliar with failure?
There is talent too, bags of it, but a dearth of talent hasn’t been England’s problem in the past. They've had that in spades but this year there is so much more. Courage, trust, a little bit of luck, perhaps most importantly the support of a nation so invested in this group of players they will even waste full pints of beer as a demonstration of their unwavering support. I never thought I’d see that.
England’s legs will be fresher than their opponent’s, having dispatched Sweden within the regulation 90. Expect them to burst out of the blocks in an attempt to catch Croatia’s collectively aching limbs still a little stiff. An early goal to settle the nerves would be nice.
Southgate is likely to field the same XI he started against Sweden. Dele Alli’s goal in that game should be enough to hold his place despite a poor overall performance. The much-maligned Raheem Sterling also did everything to ensure another start except finish.
Jordan Henderson, whose stock continues to rise at this World Cup, should be fit after recovering from a tight hamstring. Southgate will also hope Jamie Vardy's groin has recovered after a strain against Colombia. His pace could be a vital weapon in the closing stages.
In Rakitic and Modric, Croatia have two of the best midfielders on the planet. If Croatia are to find a way to end Southgate’s march towards redemption. the two halves of Zlatko Dalic's El Clasico pivot must continue their fine form. Their combined threat could force England to bolster their midfield. There has been talk of Eric Dier being drafted in to help Jordan Henderson cope with Croatia’s dynamic duo.
Dalic will be hoping his players can recover from mental and physical exhaustion brought about by two consecutive doses of extra-time and penalties.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic is a doubt after saving two penalties when obviously injured against Russia. Teammates and supporters will be hoping he didn't damage his hamstring too greatly to continue putting pressure on Jordan Pickford and Hugo Lloris in the race for the Golden Glove.
Defenders Sime Vrsaljko and Dejan Lovren also missed Croatia's initial training session for the semifinal. Mario Mandzukic has also been limping his way through this tournament with an unrevealed condition.
At least, suspensions won't concern Dalic. His side skirted FIFA's disciplinary board after entering the quarterfinal with eight players on a yellow card. Domagoj Vida did earn a first caution for losing his shirt while celebrating his headed goal in extra time. He did not lose it again, however, over his supporting role in a political video posted after Croatia's win. Vida and coach Ognjen Vukojevic dedicated their victory to Dynamo Kyiv, a Ukrainian club. Vukojevic has been sent home for insulting his defeated hosts, who also happen to be occupying a portion of that nation. So far, Vida has escaped punishment and will be available to face England.
England have the chance to go further than any Three Lions side since the 1966 winners. There's no reason they can't. Southgate’s team are in possession of that much-coveted footballing commodity: momentum. Croatia have it too, of course, but their toil in getting to this stage has tempered theirs somewhat. England, on the other hand, are riding the crest of a tsunami created by the shifting tectonic plates of destiny. For the first time in a very, very long time you get the feeling that they really can bring football home.