In England’s 23-man World Cup squad, all of five players were born before their epic semi-final battle with old rivals Germany at Turin in the 1990 edition.
After many years of below-par displays, resulting even in missing out on qualification (1994 World Cup, Euro 2008), penalty shootout losses galore (Euro ’96, ’04, ’12 and World Cup ’98 and ’06), and managerial merry-go-rounds, England find themselves on the cusp of reaching the summit.
Even coach Gareth Southgate wasn’t born the only time England lifted the World Cup – in 1966. After a bizarre turn of events, the 47-year-old was elevated to the post of head coach in 2016 after managing the England youth team. The Three Lions were never the same again. One of the keys to Southgate’s success can be deciphered through some of the buzzwords that the players have thrown.
“Owning a penalty shootout” and “playing with an identity” were terms that remained most alien to this side’s predecessors, who were slammed for repeatedly faltering at the big stage despite the heady highs they reached at club level.
It’s steady success at at club level that has shaped modern-day Croatia too. Their star-studded midfield, along with striker Mario Manduzkic, are now household names in Europe.
Twenty years after Davor Suker and Co reached the semi-finals in France, Zlatko Dalic’s side look to make history. During their thrilling win against hosts Russia in the quarter-finals, Croatia already registered their name in the history books: they became only the second side to win two penalty shootouts in a World Cup.
Luca Modric and Co may have gone off the boil somewhat in the last two games, but England will be well aware of how dangerous they can be on the counter-attack. They would have watched how Lionel Messi was marked out and Argentina’s backline was cut wide open. Against Russia, Mandzukic’s versatility was complimented by Andrej Kramaric’s direct runs.
Over the past decade, these two teams have clashed in games that had large-scale repercussions. Slaven Bilic’s spirited Croats dumped the highly-fancied Englishmen out of Euro 2008 during the qualifiers. England, rejuvenated under Fabio Capello, extracted their revenge a little more than a year later with an emphatic 5-1 win during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers.
Skipper Modric cut his teeth in England before going on to be a serial winner and a Rolls Royce of a midfielder at Real Madrid. In north London, things took an interesting turn a few years ago. Tottenham Hotspur’s former jewel was replaced by current England captain Harry Kane, who is widely recognised as among the best strikers in the world. Kane is leading the race in the Golden Boot charts with six goals. Playing in his first World Cup, Kane has lived up to his hype and will undoubtedly cause the Croatian defence problems despite having a quite outing against Sweden.
Despite going on a dream run, it must be said that England have been a tad lucky. There have been occasions when they were caught out in possession but haven’t been punished. While cynics may point out England having an easier ride than France and Belgium’s route to the last four, there is an old adage that says there are no easy games in the knockout stages. Two years ago, Roy Hodgson’s side was humbled by newcomers Iceland in the European Championships. Before kick-off, that was penciled as an easy game too for England.
It is unlikely that Southgate will make any changes for the semi-final. The match could be decided in the centre of the pitch, an area where Croatia could gain the upper hand. This is where Jordan Henderson will hold the key. The Liverpool captain has quietly gone on to make a mark in the competition in breaking play and starting attacks. He now has the unenviable task of upsetting Modric’s passing rhythm. There is also Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic along with wingers Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic to contain.
Brozovic came on a substitute against Russia but could get the nod to overload the middle. Will Southgate deploy Eric Dier as a conventional defensive midfielder to work in tandem with Henderson? How much does England boss rely on Dele Alli to maintain the balance between defence and attack?
Croatia’s major worry will be set-pieces, an area where England have thrived so far. The Vatreni were helpless as they allowed Manuel Fernandes to head a late equaliser deep into extra-time. In John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kane, Alli, and Walker, it is the Three Lions who hold the edge in the box.
But it could very well be a case of what the goalkeepers produce on the day. Both Danijel Subasic and Jordan Pickford have been outstanding in their own right. Subasic struggled with fitness in the Russia game, and could end up being a huge blow if he doesn’t start. The same goes for Rebic and Mandzukic, who laboured towards the end of the contest.
Having played more than 240 minutes of football and survived two nerve-wracking penalty shootouts, how much more do Croatia have in their tank?