WE’RE PLAYING CROATIA IN A WORLD CUP SEMI-FINAL
Remember the dark days? Remember 2007?
Remember Schteeve frozen, scared shitless underneath his brolly, meekly pleading with the lads to wang another feckless crossfield mortar towards Crouchy? Remember Desperate Dan in nets confidently palming shots right into the corner of his goal?
Remember sitting in sheer disbelief, processing the fact that the most talented generation of players the nation’s loins had produced since ‘66, all of them at the peak of their powers in Champions League dominating clubs, had utterly, utterly f*cked it?
Remember when we missed out on qualification for a major tournament losing to a poorer Croatia outfit than this?
Over a decade on from that dreary night, we’re experiencing rare and heady days. Buckle in and enjoy the sun whilst it shines.
A Steep Step Up
After what we'll call ‘a kindly’ draw thus far, Croatia will be England’s sternest test of the tournament.
This is an urbane team littered with genuine excellence – their squad averages over 20 caps more per player than England’s whilst boasting 9 Champions League winners’ medals to England’s measly 1.
This is a side that made a mockery of Argentina, finishing top of a tricky group with 9 points and just one goal shipped.
Crucially they’ll be a first genuine test for England’s defence – Colombia were toothless sans James whilst Sweden didn’t dare mount an attack until they were 2-0 down. The Croats have netted at least twice in every game bar one thus far and are blessed with plenty of goals from midfield to supplement the quality and sheer graft of Mario Mandzukic.
But They’re Shagged…
World Cups are a genuine slog come the final throes and Croatia have hobbled through two gruelling extra time ties in just six days, the second spent trying to keep up with a Russian side dogged by doping allegations and who’ve looked ‘remarkably full of running’ throughout the tournament. Also of note, prior to the start of the semis, star man Luka Modric had played the most minutes of any player left in the tournament (485) and, at 32, will surely feel the pace eventually.
If England can stay in the game till the final 30 minutes, their fresher legs and superior quality off the bench could well be the deciding factor here.
…And Falling To Bits
On top of the gruelling minutes clocked there are also injuries to key players – penalty hero Danijel Subasic played the shootout against Russia on one leg whilst Atletico right-back Sime Vrsaljko will be nowhere near 100% if he plays on with a knee knack that forced him off in extra time against Russia.
Both situations play into England’s hands, either Croatia field crocked players or inferior reserves. While back up keeper Lovre Kalinic of Ghent is no clown, he doesn’t boast the same pedigree as seasoned Champions League campaigner Subasic.
Vrsaljko’s potential absence would arguably cause the greatest disruption however. If set to miss out, the impressive Domagoj Vida will likely shift across to right back with former Man City and Spurs plodder, Charlie Corluka, slotting in at centre-half.
Now at Lokomotiv Moscow, Corluka looked to be running through custard in his early 20s and is positively glacial now at the ripe age of 32. I’d honestly back a beached whale to turn quicker than the lad meaning Sterling and Lingard should be licking their lips at the thought of isolating him one on one.
Where Croatia do hold the edge is in the middle of the park. In Modric and Rakitic they posses international football’s most talented pairing whilst Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic, both of Inter, and Real’s Mateo Kovacic of are hardly cack-footed slouches either.
England have succeeded thus far with a lone midfield breakwater in Jordan Henderson and plenty of movement ahead of him. With Croatia likely to pack the midfield Gareth Southgate will need to decide on installing either Eric Dier, Fabian Delph or Ruben Loftus Cheek alongside him to ensure Croatia don’t gain a stranglehold on possession.
The perhaps riskier option would be to keep the same side as Sweden but task Jesse Lingard with a more disciplined role. Whilst famously Jose Mourinho’s most trusted defensive forward he very much leads from the front, whether he has the positional nous and discipline to stymie a pair of ritzy ballers such Rakitic and Modric in deeper areas of the field remains to be seen.
Despite his slim C.V. Southgate clearly possesses one hell of a footballing brain and is yet to make bad tactical call in Russia. If anyone’s going to master the Croat puzzle out right now, it’s him.
The Missing Piece
Following a string of powerful, composed and resilient performances, the outstanding ask against Sweden was for England’s creators to show a bit more from open play.
In response, Gareth’s garcons duly served with their most complete showing of the tournament, capped with a goal for Alli assisted by Lingard. Pretty hard to sniff at.
All that remains is for Sterling to get in on the act. Whilst hardly the donkey in front of goal he’s portrayed as at times (he’s outscored ‘proper’ strikers such as Olivier Giroud, Gabriel Jesus and Karim Benzema over the last two seasons), it remains the outstanding weakness in his overall game.
Against Sweden he was largely very good, dropping deep to give and go, buying Henderson time to pick passes and was the only man stretching the Scandis with his little Velma runs off the last man.
If England were to make it to the final, they’d need Sterling at the very top of his game to compete with a French side who’ve belatedly flexed their considerable muscles as the tournament has worn on. Time is running out but you feel a goal against Croatia would do the much-maligned City’s man’s confidence, and finishing, a world of good.
Watch Out For This Guy
Look at this git. No idea who he is but looks like a real piece of work.
Bet he’s a dab hand when it comes to rolling around in ill-fitting varsity jackets, sleazing on cheerleaders and shoving nerds against lockers.