World Cup Semi-Final Preview: The Three Lions Vs The Vatreni

Gareth Southgate’s England team take on Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, with a place in the World Cup final against France at stake.

It’s the first time that the Three Lions have reached the World Cup semi-finals since Italia ’90, and just the third time in their history; the other semi-final coming in 1966.

Croatia’s only appearance in the last four arrived against the 1998 host nation France. Davor Šuker – the Golden Boot winner that year – opened the scoring, only for Lillian Thuram to score a phenomenal brace; the only goals the defender managed to score for Les Bleus in 142 appearances.

Prior to France ’98, Croatia were a part of Yugoslavia before they gained independence, along with Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia.

Fatigue

The Vatreni have needed a penalty shootout in both knock-out rounds against Denmark and Russia to reach the semi-finals.

Against Russia some of the Croatians looked visibly tired, and at times their midfield duo of Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić dropped considerably deeper than usual.

“We’ve played five difficult games, they’ve taken their toll,” Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić said.

“We’re tired but there can be no excuses. We’ve come to the semi-final. We’re here to play football, enjoy ourselves and give our all.”

England have enjoyed a much smoother run to the semi-final: comfortably sweeping aside Sweden in the quarter-finals, although they were taken to penalties against Colombia.

Southgate’s decision to rest eight players in England’s last group game has already been vindicated, but might also prove to be key in the Three Lions’ bid for their first final in a major competition since 1966.

Comparing midfielders’ minutes in Russia: Jesse Lingard (363) and Jordan Henderson (385); Ivan Rakitić (428) and Luka Modrić (485).

Croatia’s Road to the Semi-Finals

2-0 vs Nigeria, 3-0 vs Argentina, 2-1 vs Iceland, 1-1* vs Denmark, 2-2* vs Russia. (* = won on penalties)

The Vatreni were arguably the most impressive team at the group stages, punctuated by an outstanding display against Lionel Messi’s Argentina.

In the knockout rounds, the Croatians have only played well in moments, and have suffered in both games before holding their nerve on penalties; Rakitić scoring the deciding penalty on both occasions.

Croatia’s key players

In Modrić, Croatia possess arguably the best midfielder in world football. Fresh from Real Madrid’s third consecutive Champions League win, the 32-year-old is having a superb tournament.

He is supported by Rakitić, who has demonstrated his composure with the two decisive penalties for the Vatreni in their shootouts, and Inter Milan’s Ivan Perišić, who Jose Mourinho targeted last summer.

Up top they have the Juventus striker Mario Mandžukić. He scored the UEFA Goal of the Season for 2016–17 with an overhead kick in the 2017 Champions League final against Real Madrid, and assisted Croatia’s equaliser against Russia, as well as scoring the equaliser against Denmark.

The Three Lions

Southgate’s men have been the favourites in all of their victories so far, and will be favoured again heading into their huge semi-final tie.

Harry Kane drew a blank for the first time as England captain in the 2-0 victory over Sweden. With six goals in Russia, the Three Lions’ talisman already looks to have secured the Golden Boot, with his closest rivals – Romelu Lukaku (4), Antoine Griezmann (3) and Kylian Mbappé (3) – having just one more game to increase their tournament total.

With just three matches to play, 69 of the 158 goals that have been scored at the tournament have come from dead-ball situations, including France’s semi-final winner against Belgium.

The Three Lions have scored a tournament high eight goals from set-pieces, with Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and John Stones proving to be particularly difficult for opposing defences to contain.

Croatia’s inability to successfully defend set-pieces saw them concede a late equaliser against Russia.

The Three Lions are now unbeaten in the last 30 games that Jordan Henderson has appeared in, which is the longest streak of any player in Three Lions’ history

Head-to-heads

Croatia defeated England at home and away in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, to progress to the championships at the expense of the Three Lions. England returned the favour in their qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, putting nine goals past the Vatreni across both fixtures.

9 September 2009, World Cup 2010 qualifying: England 5-1 Croatia

10 September 2008, World Cup 2010 qualifying: Croatia 1-4 England

21 November 2007, Euro 2008 qualifying: England 2-3 Croatia

11 October 2006, Euro 2008 qualifying: Croatia 2-0 England

20 August 2003, friendly: England 3-1 Croatia

24 April 1996, friendly: England 0-0 Croatia

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