Croatia duo must be kept in check if England are to reach World Cup final
PUBLISHED: 16:00 11 July 2018 | UPDATED: 18:30 11 July 2018
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Croatia had only just been formed in the same year that England last reached a World Cup semi-final in 1990.
They have considerably punched above their weight ever since bearing in mind that only Panama, Uruguay and Iceland have smaller populations out of the countries that qualified for Russia.
They have established themselves as a technical, tough nation on the world stage, first really making an impression at a big tournament in 1998 when they were something of a ‘hipsters’ team. Only two late goals from Lilian Thuram prevented them from reaching the World Cup final against the hosts at France 1998 after they had taken the lead.
There weren’t too many nations at the time that could call upon the depth of world class players they could. Davor Suker was the archetypal fox in the box, starring for Sevilla and Real Madrid, before an indifferent spell at Arsenal.
But it was in midfield that their strength really lied. Zvonimir Boban was part of the all conquering AC Milan sides in the nineties whilst the classy Robert Prosinecki was ahead of his time as a ball-playing central midfielder. He’s one of only 11 players to have played for both Barcelona at Real Madrid.
There are echoes of their impressive midfield in the current side. There are few better players at controlling the tempo of a game than Luka Modric. Whilst there was a lot of talk early in this World Cup of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo jousting for the ‘greatest of all time’ tag, Modric quietly went about guiding his country to the last four.
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He makes the players around him look even better than they are and the same can’t always be said of Messi and Ronaldo, demonstrated by the fact they have been enjoying their holidays for the last 10 days rather than playing in Russia.
Modric scuttles around the pitch, able to break up play when it’s called for, and immaculate in making the play when given the ball. Only Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne has created more chances than the Madrid midfielder’s 14 at the World Cup.
Ivan Rakitic complements the former Tottenham man perfectly. The 30-year-old makes everything look rather simple – covering every blade of grass possible and barely breaking a sweat in the process.
This will be an entirely different test for Southgate’s side to deal with out in Russia and represents a few notches up on anything they have faced so far.
England are unlikely to dominate possession in the way they did against Sweden and it is in the engine room that the game will be won and lost.
It was noticeable against Russia that once Marcelo Brozovic was brought on that Modric and Rakitic were freed up to do damage further forward. Jordan Henderson could find himself in for a busy evening at the base of England’s midfield and will be relying on the game intelligence from the likes of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to offer some strength in numbers to ensure the Liverpool man isn’t overrun.
Henderson might also be hoping that he doesn’t have to step forward again in a penalty shoot-out just as he did against Colombia.
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Whilst his miss became a footnote in the story of England’s first World Cup penalty shoot-out victory, Croatia have emerged through two shoot-out processes against Denmark and Sweden.
That was thanks in large part to their goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, who cuts an imposing presence from 12 yards and is regarded as something of a penalty saving specialist.
But Croatia are far from infallible. Whilst Southgate has helped install a system where every player knows their role, his Croatia counterpart, Zlatko Dalic, cannot say the same.
He has flitted between 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 out in Russia and there is a feeling back home that he is yet to find a system that gets the best out of his midfield resources, which also include the highly-rated Ivan Perisic, who was heavily linked with Manchester United last summer.
It promises to be one of the more tense evenings as an England fan and if Southgate’s men book a place in the final, the thinking they’ve had an easy route to the final can be put to bed.
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