STAR PREVIEW: Croatia v England

Croatia v England
FIFA World Cup 2018 Semi-Final
19:00 ITV

It’s close. So very close. One game of football stands between England and the World Cup Final.

That’s right, the World Cup Final. And what’s more, they’re favourites (5/4 to win in 90 minutes with starsports.bet) to win their first semi in 20 years.

So much credit has to go to Gareth Southgate for the approach he has taken to management, one which seems to uniquely suit what is a young side that has finally transferred their club form into the international stage.

Croatia, tonight’s semi-final opponents, are on paper the toughest test they’ve had so far, although there is likely to be no fear of a side that is here for the first time since 1998.

Overall, the campaign will be seen as a success given how Gareth Southgate’s boys have captured the hearts of a nation whilst also atoning for a number of tournament failures in the past two decades, and regardless of the result tonight there is at least plenty to take out of their run to this stage.

Markets have England as favourites to get through and quite strong ones, which one might say would be fair given the outright positions the pair occupied at the beginning of the tournament.

In the cold light of day though, this will be a much tougher test than Sweden, who offered little going upfront, whilst Croatia had to take on an extremely motivated host nation who gave their all (worth remembering Russia knocked out Spain beforehand).

Nine players in the World Cup semi-finals come from Tottenham and their influence has been an important part of this England squad, with Kieran Tripper really impressing whilst Harry Kane has, of course, led the frontline with aplomb. Many of his six goals have come from the penalty spot but he has done a lot off the ball and his teammate Dele Alli has partnered well with Jesse Lingard in midfield.

Gareth Southgate is also in the excellent position of having basically a fully fit starting XI to choose from. Croatia have had to go through to penalties twice, with a number of the squad looking exhausted towards the end of their quarter-finals.

Hosts Russia have run more than just about any other team in the tournament and it is quite possible that the game has left a deep mark on a side that played well below their best in the last 16 as well.

Obviously, Croatia will be formidable opponents, no matter what. This is likely to be the last chance at the World Cup for what is very much a golden generation – the likes of Luka Modric especially – and there’s no doubting the quality of players like Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic.

Many games in World Cup knockouts are often extremely tense counters and this has all the hallmarks of another one here. Croatia will have more of the ball than Sweden with their greater midfield and attacking talent, although it is clear they are not playing at the same level of the group stages.

England have been given a fine chance by this, as well as a less exhaustive semi-final, although when putting an analytical hat on, in a game of few goals 5/4 feels short for them to win in 90. There have been three draws between the two in the knockout games already and England have grown defensively into a tournament where Croatia, for all their class, have perhaps dropped off their initial levels.

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