CROATIA V ENGLAND – 11 July – Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow – 17:00 BST
England are into their first semi-finals after 28 years and it will be Croatia who they will be taking on in the Final Four. The Three Lions are the more confident side going into Wednesday’s clash at the Luzhniki Stadium, having dispatched off a very tough Swedish side 2-0 without much ado. By contrast the Croats were made to work exceedingly hard to get past Denmark and Russia, both fixtures going into penalty shoot-outs.
The English side that looked a bit disconcerted in most of their early games showed no signs of the same against Sweden. The return of Del Alli to the side after being on the sidelines for the Panama and Belgium clash has provided fresh legs to the English attack. Raheem Sterling has been electric on the flanks but needs to brush up on his finishing skills. The Manchester City star has just a couple of goals to show from his 42 international outings which is in stark contrast to his showing at the club level. A probable introduction of the brilliant young Marcus Rashford in his place mid-way through the game would do the team no harm.The 20-year old Manchester United striker has been vastly under-utilized, spending most of his time warming the benches. Harry Kane, the WC 2018’s top scorer till now with 6 goals was subdued in the quarter-final clash but 25-year old Leicester City back Harry Maguire was a revelation both in attack and in defense. One concern for coach Gareth Southgate will be the lack of goals coming from normal play. Eight of England’s 11 goals have come from set-pieces that includes three from penalties. Penalties and corners aside, the English attack need to create enough opportunities for their main striker, Harry Kane, to score. Jordan Henderson, Kieran Trippier, Del Alli and Jesse Lingard have looked good going into the Croatia clash, not to speak of the extraordinary run Jordan Pickford is having between the posts.
Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic will probably start with 1899 Hoffenheim striker Andrej Kramaric whom he substituted for defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic in the game against Russia and with much success. He is likely to adopt a 4-3-3 formation with Kramaric, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic in the role of strikers. Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Ante Rebic will play behind the three and will be the heart of Croatia’s mid-field play. The Balkans who were so devastating against Argentina in their 3-0 Group win a fortnight ago have sagged qualitatively especially in games that have gone into extra time. With players like Rakitic, Modric, Subasic and Mario Mandzukic on the wrong side of 30, fitness will be a key concern for the Croatians. This is one area the Three Lions score over their mid-week rivals with most of their key players in their early and mid-20s.
Bookmakers are wagering on England emerging winners with a high probability of the game going into extra time, something that should should suit them well.
England’s probable starting XI: Pickford (goal); Walker, Stones, Maguire, Trippier, Henderson, Alli, Lingard, Young, Sterling, Kane
Croatia’s probable XI: Subasic (goal); Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic, Rakitic, Modric, Rebic, Kramaric, Perisic, Mandzukic