Freed from the chains of their past — some distant and others more recent — Croatia and England vie in Moscow on Wednesday to claim a spot in the World Cup final.
For the Vatreni, the tall order of living up to the 1998 squad led by Davor Suker who reached the semifinals in the country’s first World Cup appearance has finally been achieved. It took becoming the first team to win consecutive shootouts since the 1990 Argentina side to get there, but Croatia booked its spot in the final four with a dramatic victory over Russia on penalties after playing to a 2-2 draw.
Andrej Kramaric scored a first-half goal to level the match and Domagoj Vida’s header off Luka Modric’s corner in the 101st minute gave Croatia a 2-1 lead it relinquished with five minutes left in the second 15-minute extra period.
It would be penalties once more, and after tying a World Cup record with three saves in the victory over Denmark, Vatreni keeper Danijel Subasic made a fourth versus the Sbornaya. Mario Fernandes would add a second miss for Russia, and for the second straight match, Ivan Rakitic would convert the decisive kick into the lower left corner in the fifth round.
The Barcelona midfielder became the first person to take two winning spot kicks in World Cup history.
“I am proud to be part of this team that will remain enrolled as one of the biggest in Croatian sports,” Kramaric told FIFA’s official website. “But we do not want to stop now, we have to make it a step further.
“The match against Russia is yet another victory of our character. We have nerves of steel. We showed how calm and self-confident we are. Perhaps the match was not the most beautiful, but it will be remembered.”
It was an uneven match for Croatia, which at times bossed Russia around the pitch through Modric’s string-pulling while paying heavy prices for mistakes on both goals. Defender Josep Pivaric conceded a free kick just outside the penalty area with a deliberate hand ball that led to Russia’s late equalizer.
Despite taking 18 shots, the Vatreni put only three on target, though a fourth by Ivan Perisic hit the inside of the left post and spun away in the second half. Croatia, though, has made the most of its chances when it gets good looks — its 10 goals have come from 19 shots on target.
England left behind its tortured past in penalties by becoming just the third team in 30 World Cup shootouts to overturn a deficit when it beat Colombia in spot kicks in the round of 16. The Three Lions had a more straightforward victory in reaching the semifinals for the first time since 1990, defeating Sweden 2-0.
Harry Maguire extended England’s dominance in set pieces in Russia with a well-taken header off a corner in the first half, and Dele Alli’s second-half header from close range accounted for the offense. Keeper Jordan Pickford picked an opportune time for his first clean sheet at this World Cup, making two timely saves in the second half and a third top-notch block to continue the surprise run of this young England side.
“The adrenaline was really, really high,” Maguire said. “It was an unbelievable moment, a really proud moment for myself. My first England goal – and it couldn’t have come at a better time. We’d had a nervy start maybe, early in the game, and the goal really settled us down and then we deserved the win.”
It was also England’s eighth goal off set pieces at this tournament, easily the most of any team and the most in World Cup history since Portugal bagged that many in 1966. Three Lions supporters may consider that a good omen, along with the 11 goals they have scored overall since that is how many goals they scored en route to their only World Cup title as hosts 52 years prior.
Striker Harry Kane still comfortably leads the Golden Boot race with six goals, two clear of Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, Russia’s Denis Cheryshev and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, though only Lukaku can catch him of the three.
While chasing away the demons of past World Cups has been achieved, there is still one dubious moment in England’s storied history it would like to avenge against Croatia.
The Vatreni famously dumped the Three Lions out of qualifying for the 2008 European Championships with a 3-2 victory at Wembley Stadium in November 2007. Modric was part of a Croatia side that raced to a 2-0 lead, only to be pegged back in the second half as substitute David Beckham led the fightback.
Mladen Petric, though, bagged the match-winner 13 minutes from time for Croatia. In England, however, the lasting image of the match was then-manager Steve McClaren shouting instructions to his players on the pitch from under an umbrella, giving rise to the infamous nickname of “The Wally with the Brolly” that has followed him throughout his career.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 16 — Croatia 2, Nigeria 0 (Etebo 32′ (og), Modric 71′ (PK))
June 21 — Croatia 3, Argentina 0 (Rebic 53′, Modric 80′, Rakitic 90+1′)
June 26 — Croatia 2, Iceland 1 (Badelj 50′, G. Sigurdsson 76′ (PK), Perisic 90′)
July 1 — Croatia 1, Denmark 1 (Jorgensen 1′, Mandzukic 4′) (Croatia wins 3-2 on PKs)
July 7 — Croatia 2, Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31′, Kramaric 39′, Vida 101′, Fernandes 115′) (Croatia wins 4-3 on PKs)
June 18 — England 2, Tunisia 1 (Kane 11′, Sassi 35′ (PK), Kane 90+1′)
June 24 — England 6, Panama 1 (Stones 8′, Kane 22′ (PK), Lingard 36′, Stones 40′, Kane 45+1′ (PK), Kane 62′, Baloy 78′)
June 28 — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)
July 3 — England 1, Colombia 1 (Kane 57′ (PK), Mina 90+3′) (England wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 7 — England 2, Sweden 0 (Maguire 30′, Alli 59′)
While left back Ivan Strinic’s status has yet to be confirmed after he had to leave before the final quarter-hour of regulation versus Russia due to a knock, the hedge is he claims his spot back while knocking Pivaric back to the bench. Coach Zlatko Dalic has gone back and forth between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1, with Modric lurking deeper in the latter formation and teaming with Rakitic in the former.
One other thing to look for from the Vatreni is how Marcelo Brozovic changes their shape. When he entered for Perisic on the hour, Croatia went to more of a 4-3-3 look with Kramaric pushing forward.
England will remain in its 3-3-2-2 set-up, though there will undoubtedly be speculation manager Gareth Southgate will drop Raheem Sterling from his starting XI as the Man City speedster has now gone more than 1,000 days without a goal for the Three Lions. The only player who comes closest to a like-for-like switch in such an instance would be Marcus Rashford, who entered as a stoppage-time sub for Sterling versus Sweden.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
Croatia has been playing with 22 men since after its win over Nigeria to open the World Cup, sending home disgruntled striker Nikola Kalinic. Strinic is an injury concern, and the fatigue of playing 120 minutes in back-to-back matches means Dalic could juggle some players in this match.
Right back Sime Vrsaljko is also a worry to be match-fit, with Dalic having the option of inserting Tin Jedvaj there or moving Vida wide while pairing Lovren with Vedran Corluka in central defense.
The Vatreni, though, did pull off a remarkable feat in that while they accrued a tournament-high 12 yellow cards, everyone is eligible to play since no one picked up a second booking before they were wiped away by getting to the semifinals.
England’s lone injury worry is reserve striker Jamie Vardy, who picked up a groin injury versus Colombia and did not appear last match. There are reports the training staff are closely monitoring central midfielder Jordan Henderson, who covered two kilometers more ground than any of his teammates in the win versus Sweden.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Croatia — Luka Modric (MF)
Modric is no stranger to English football, having played for Tottenham Hotspur before moving on to Real Madrid and winning four Champions League titles in the last five years. The 32-year-old has looked more 22 in pulling the strings in the Vatreni midfield and was doggedly pursuing the ball and attacking defenders on lung-busting runs deep into extra time versus Russia.
He has been the best midfielder at this World Cup, and the young Three Lions must be wary of his nous and quality as Croatia’s offense revolves around his movements.
England — Kieran Trippier (MF)
Trippier has played very well in this World Cup, pumping in a team-high 37 crosses and 16 corner kicks. He has contributed an assist in the latter method, and while he will get his chances to do so in this match, Trippier is going to have to give serious minutes in defense for the first time in this tournament given Croatia’s depth in attack.
It will start with Perisic, though Modric and Rakitic will invariably work their way down their left side. Trippier cannot afford to be caught too far upfield and too wide given how Croatia can string passes together in lightning-like fashion, evidenced by their first goal against Russia which took all of 12 seconds.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
This will be the first World Cup clash between the teams, and England won the only tournament meeting between the sides, a 4-2 victory in the group stage of the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. Niko Kovac staked Croatia to an early lead before England scored the next three through Paul Scholes and a brace by Wayne Rooney. Igor Tudor pulled one back for the Vatreni on 73 minutes, but Frank Lampard put the game out of reach six minutes later.
England did sweep two qualifying matches from Croatia for the 2010 World Cup by a combined 9-2 scoreline, clinching a spot in South Africa with a 5-1 thrashing in September 2009 as both Lampard and Steven Gerrard had braces before Rooney added gloss to the scoreline. Mandzukic scored the Vatreni’s lone goal in the 4-1 defeat in Croatia.
Per Ladbrokes, England is listed as a favorite with 13/10 odds, while Croatia is a 12/5 underdog. The odds of the match going to a draw are 2/1. The oddsmakers also think there will be two goals scored in the 90 minutes as that returns 23/10 odds, slightly better than one goal (27/10) and three (7/2). A 0-0 draw would return 6/1 odds.
Kane is the odds-on favorite as an any-time goal-scorer at 13/10, with Rakitic a distant second at 9/2. Kane is also leading the line for first goal-scorer at 16/5, with Vardy a surprising second at 5/1. Mandzukic is Croatia’s top option at 6/1, and Sterling is the fifth option for the Three Lions at 7/1, behind both Rashford and Danny Welbeck at 13/2.
Too young, they said. Too inexperienced, they said. It’s OK, we’re in a rebuilding phase, they said. We’ll be happy to get out of the group stage, they said. Nearly a month later, non-stop scenes of goal celebrations complete with the re-emergence of 1996 Euro anthem “It’s Coming Home,” England find itself two wins away from an unthinkable World Cup title.
The Three Lions have looked good in dispatching each opponent they have faced save the 25 minutes against Colombia in which they wobbled, giving up a late equalizer in regulation and suffering in the first extra period. Yet they are deserved semifinalists, and as the old adage goes, you can only play the teams in front of you.
Yet if there is a last gear this team has left to reach, it must find it quickly against a veteran-edged Croatia side that has more talent and nous than any opponent England has previously faced during its extended stay in Russia. Consider the Three Lions opponents: an unfancied Tunisia, an inferior Panama, a second-string Belgium, a Colombia missing its best player through injury and a Sweden squad that while game may also have been the perfect opponent coming off a 120-minute contest.
Now consider Croatia’s foes: A naive yet talented Nigeria, a top-heavy Argentina, a desperate but outclassed Iceland, an average Denmark side with a world-class shot-stopper and overachieving host Russia. The Vatreni have played an extra 30 minutes compared to England to get to the last four, and their road has been more arduous.
Yet there are plenty of places where England can take solace. Kane got so into Lovren’s head in a Premier League match last season when Tottenham Hotspur played Liverpool that the Croatia defender was subbed out a half-hour into the match. The spine of Maguire and John Stones in central defense have been nothing short of phenomenal doing their primary job while carrying forward with the ball and contributing goals off set pieces.
Pickford is coming off the best match of his England career and riding a wave of confidence. That will come in handy because at some point Modric will be able to recycle Croatia’s offense in England’s final third and put the Three Lions under sustained pressure.
It’s fair to wonder how much Croatia has left in the tank coming off back-to-back shootouts, but being able to rest most of its regulars versus Iceland helped mitigate some of that fatigue. Dalic has also shown a willingness to rotate his attacking players, complete with the surprising lifting of Perisic on the hour versus Russia.
This game has the feel of a rope-a-dope by Croatia unless England harries Modric and Rakitic all over the midfield and prevents them from passing forward in rapid fashion. Modric is the more dangerous passer of the two, the one who causes moments of disruption as opposed to the more fluid Rakitic, but the X-factor for the Vatreni could be Ante Rebic.
Rebic has stretches of play when he is borderline unstoppable, but he has yet to sustain it over a full 90 minutes. If he can hook up with Mandzukic, also owning the potential to be a handful, Croatia has a good chance to go forward to its first World Cup final and deny England its long-awaited return and extend 52 years of hurt.
PREDICTION: Croatia 2, England 1
The winner of this match will face the winner of the France-Belgium match in the World Cup final on Sunday in Moscow. The semifinal losers will play each other for third place Saturday in St. Petersburg.