Anyone who placed a bet on the second World Cup semifinal being between England and Croatia will presumably be floating around in a pool of cash at the moment. To say this was unexpected would be an understatement, a likeable England team of theoretically moderate quality against Croatia, who had to go through the playoffs to reach Russia.
But they’ve both made it further than Brazil, Germany, Spain and Argentina, and are potentially 90 minutes away from the World Cup final. But who will make it? Who will have the edge in Moscow on Wednesday evening?
At the time of writing, it’s not clear who will be between the sticks for Croatia: Danijel Subasic is carrying a hamstring injury, but for these purposes it doesn’t matter too much whether he or backup Lovre Kalinic takes the gloves for Croatia.
Jordan Pickford has been one of the standout players in this World Cup overall, never mind just in the England squad. The win over Sweden felt comfortable from an English perspective, but at the same time it relied on a couple of outstanding stops from the Everton keeper, and of course without his brilliant save in the shootout against Colombia, England would not be in the semifinals.
Again, Croatia could have injury problems to deal with, if right-back Sime Vrsaljko’s knee problem doesn’t clear up in time. That would mean Vedran Corluka, surprisingly still only 32, would probably play instead, a development that might be welcomed in the England camp. Croatia’s back line has performed reasonably well in Russia, but they have certainly endured some shaky moments, as we’ve come to expect from Dejan Lovren.
On the other hand England’s defence has been the bedrock of their progression to this stage. The all-Yorkshire trio of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire have excelled, in the basics of “kick it and head it” defending, but also in bringing the ball out from the back in the manner that Gareth Southgate has demanded.
Some choices made in this Tale of the Tape have been close. This isn’t. For all Jordan Henderson, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli have performed well at the World Cup, none of them come close to the class of Luka Modric, and to a very slightly lesser extent Ivan Rakitic. Henderson in particular will be able to testify that playing against Modric is no picnic, having been given the run around by the Real Madrid playmaker in the Champions League final. With Ivan Perisic and Ante Rabic out wide too, England will have quite a task on their hands.
This will be where the game is won. Southgate might even contemplate a slight formation change, bringing in either Fabian Delph or Eric Dier to help Henderson cope with the Croatian midfield. Either way, if England can shackle Modric and Rakitic then they have a chance. If they can’t, Croatia will be in the final.
Mario Mandzukic is a fine, hard-working forward, in this tournament broadly asked to do a grafting job while the creatives do their work behind him. Andrej Kramaric also has played well when called upon, and of course scored against Russia. But none of the forwards at Croatia’s disposal have the class of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
It might be a mild concern to England that Kane hasn’t deliberately scored a goal from open play since the opening game against Tunisia. That is not to diminish his skills from the penalty spot, but they cannot keep relying on that. Equally the chances that Sterling has missed are a cause for worry. But both are still two of the most threatening attackers at the World Cup, and will still provide enormous problems for Lovren and Domagoj Vida in the Croatian defence.
Whatever the result on Wednesday evening, Gareth Southgate will return home with his reputation hugely enhanced, after taking over the mess left after Sam Allardyce’s departure and guiding England to the last four of the World Cup. But at least Southgate had a couple of years to prepare his team for this surprise run: Zlatko Dalic was appointed a couple of days before a must-win qualification match against Ukraine, replacing Ante Cacic. They did win, then beat Greece in the play-offs to reach Russia. How far they’ve come since then.
Dalic has managed to get Modric and Rakitic working together, and made sense of a team floundering before his arrival. Southgate has undoubtedly done a brilliant job, but in much calmer circumstances than Dalic. Croatia just have the edge here.
Much has been made of the fact Croatia reached this stage after winning two penalty shootouts, the extra running in their legs giving England an advantage. But in truth that probably doesn’t matter too much: It’s not quite as simple as this, but an extra half-hour or so of football is unlikely to prove calamitous for the Croatians, particularly as the final stages of a World Cup are fuelled by adrenaline anyway.
Both sides should in theory have the same pressures or freedoms that come from not expecting to be at this stage, but Croatia have undoubtedly come through the tougher tests to get here. They beat an admittedly ailing Argentina and the hosts, which could sap their emotional energy, but more likely makes them more battle-hardened and used to the big challenges.
Prediction Croatia 2-1 England, after extra time.