England versus Croatia (July 11, 2018 by 7:00pm)
When Gareth Southgate announced his 23man squad for the ongoing FIFA World Cup at the start of June, yours truly was part of those that expected them to get knocked out not later than the second round. The omission of the likes of Jamal Lascelles of Newcastle who had a bomb season in favour of Gary Cahill, Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Wilshere, intelligent ball passers in favour of Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph as well as the strange inclusion of Danny Welbeck ahead of several potent forwards in the English league that are eligible to play for the 3Lions got many expecting Southgate’s team to just make up the numbers, fast forward four weeks later and they were beating Sweden convincingly on and off the pitch with Zlatan Ibrahimovic losing a bet to David Beckham; while some will be quick to pour cold water on the achievements of these hardworking lads by citing their easier route to this stage compared to that of France whom they will play should they beat Croatia, one must not be unfair and insensitive to join such bandits as it will be said anywhere that the semifinals of the World Cup isn’t a mean feat.
Croatia haven’t really punched above their weights, in actual facts, they have underperformed in some games they should be winning without needing the element of luck and palpable tensions that come with penalty shootouts; after beating Argentina in the group stage, pundits and the entire world started giving them a chance, top team with a lot of intelligently gifted players, they went on to finish top of group D and then needed penalty shootouts to oust Denmark and Russia in the ensuing stages, taking nothing away from the quality of the Danes as well as the fighting spirit of the hosts, those are games Croatia should be winning in regular time. That said, this is a different ball game, the semifinal of the World Cup, just one more road to cross till they walk out of the tunnel to the sight of the holy grail, the trophy.
England were champions in 1966, just a few of the triumphant members of the squad are still alive, 52 long years ago, what a story it would be if they manage to sneak into the final where the opposition doesn’t matter anymore but the size of their dreams; for Croatia, they were surprise semifinalists in 1998, twenty years ago and it was their first time, they were beaten by the hosts in a comeback victory after Davor Suker had put them in front, two Lillian Thuram strikes turned things around for France to the despair of the debutants, they have another chance to take it further now, it was the same story for England at Italia 90, they lost out at the semifinals on penalties and will look to do everything to banish that memory with a win here.
In midfield, there’s no chance for England, they can’t match the intelligence and quality of the Croats, but the trickery they have in Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and the vision of Jordan Henderson can help them outrun the opposition. The full backs, Ashley Young and Kevin Trippier have lots of work to do, to hug the line in attack and cut out inward runs in defense. For Croatia, Brozovic, Rakitic and Luka Modric have a telepathic symphony that resonates the rhythm mesmerizingly with Rebic and Perisic, if they all come to the party as expected, England will not find them interesting.
England has in Harry Kane one of the most prolific forwards of the era, precise and alert, less drama, little camaraderie, just action, Mandjukic has his days and his presence is always a trouble to any defense but Kane certainly is more deadly. The England captain has shouldered most of the goals, albeit three from the spot and a fortuitous deflection that completed his hatrick against Panama, that said, you can’t take anything away from his potency as a striker.
In the goalkeeping departments, both stoppers have had their says in the success stories of their respective teams, Subasic played through injury to help Croatia beat Russia on penalties and Pickford was up there in the game against Sweden, denying Marcus Berg time and time until death.
Provisional starting XI
Croatia: Subasic, Vrsaljko, Vida, Lovren, Strinic, Brozovic, Rakitic, Modric, Rebic, Perisic, Mandjukic
England: Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Trippier, Young, Henderson, Alli, Lingard, Sterling, Kane
Ramsey’s Verdict: Croatia to advance
Dipo’s Verdict: England to advance
Feature Image: Metro UK