England and Croatia face off in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final in at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, with both nations seeking to etch their mark in history.
Almost four weeks on from the opening ceremony at the same venue in the Motherland’s capital, the stakes are sky-high as the two of the more unlikely sides to be part of the World Cup final pre-tournament vie for a immediate return this Sunday at the tournament’s showpiece finale against either France or Belgium, to be crowned world champions.
Those are the words on the nation’s lips. Up and down the land; in the pubs, clubs, playgrounds, offices, even pets have gone football mad but with justification.
Young or old, the country has been united by the most unlikely of World Cup odysseys after a four-year period that left England fans at their lowest ebb.
Gareth Southgate’s young Lions appeared to be have a different pack mentality of a group that actually wanted to play for their country before this summer, but even the most ardent and optimistic of fans could would have been hard pressed to envisage them being in the final week of competition. But that is now reality.
If victories against Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden have been tainted by accusations of facing a lesser opponent, that tag will be put to bed when England face Vatreni on Wednesday.
England have yet to come up against a modern footballing heavyweight – aside from the Belgium team – and Zlatko Dalic’s men are lofty barrier to climb if they are to reach only their second tournament final.
Croatia obviously boast Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in central midfield, but Hrvatska have the players to hurt Southgate’s men in the wide areas with Ivan Perisic and the Eintracht Frankfurt’s impressive and pacey Ante Rebic on the opposite flank.
It may however be Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic that could add the extra ingredient to what could be a five-man midfield in Moscow.
The Croatian defence has a rather similar balance to it compared with the Three Lions. Both Dejan Lovren and Domogoi Vida have had strong tournaments this summer, but like Harry Maguire and John Stones for their opponents, it could be at set-pieces where the difference is made.
Whilst both teams have reached this advanced stage of the World Cup via the dreaded penalty shoot-out, it is perhaps the Croats who might boast a psychological advantage ahead of the clash.
Back-to-back victories from spot-kicks have seen Dalic’s charges become the self-appointed strongest willed side this summer, but 240 plus minutes within the last week could yet have a bearing on events at the Luzhniki on Wednesday.
The England head coach’s decision to rest most of the starting XI against the Red Devils a fortnight ago meanwhile, could ago pay enormous dividends for a side who largely untested and should be relatively fresh for the crunch tie in the capital.
The Three Lions have only reached a major tournament final on one occasion, but when they did it ended in glory in front of 90,000 adoring fans at Wembley. In terms of suffering defeat in semi-finals however, the memories of messrs Waddle and Pearce’s missed spot-kicks remain all too painful. Could it be different 28 years on with Harry Kane and co?
Croatian sporting history would be almost completely re-written if it were they to come out on top, with just a semi-final at France ’98 to boast almost exactly 20 years to the day – where they lost to eventual winner Les Bleus. Something has to give.
Despite concerns over a number of niggling injury problems, all 23 England players reported fit and available for Wednesday’s titanic clash for Tuesday’s training in Repino.
The only consideration for Southgate now, will be whether to tweak his system to a two-man holding midfield and bring in Eric Dier to combat the duel menace of Rakitic and Modric respectively.
England’s attacking threat therefore could be modified, with one of Raheem Sterling or Dele Alli to be sacrificed, however at on the eve of battle, Jesse Lingard is likely to be paired with both.
Whilst the Three Lions have a full bill of health, Dalic could be without two key men.
Full-back Sime Vrsaljko has been ruled out with a knee injury suffered in the victory over Russia on Saturday, with goalkeeper Danijel Subasic a doubt with the same hamstring injury suffered against the hosts also.
Veteran defender and former Spurs and Manchester City defender Vedran Corluka could deputise, however due to a lack of pace, Dalic could opt with either full-backs Ivan Strinic or Josip Pivaric to operate in a makeshift role as primarily left defensive players.