2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview — Arsenal (0-0-0) vs. Manchester City (0-0-0)

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

Wenger is out, but can Emery fit in?

For the first time in 23 seasons, Arsenal will have a new manager on the touchline as Unai Emery could not have picked a more difficult opponent to make a Premier League debut against than Pep Guardiola and Manchester City as the reigning champions come to the Emirates on Sunday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The divide that roiled a fan base finally reached an anticlimactic conclusion last season as the Frenchman bid au revoir to the north London side. While Wenger won a record seven FA Cups with the Gunners (19-6-13 in 2017-18), the gradual slide that had seen them fall out of Champions League play for a second straight year and lack serious title challenges for most of the decade finally wore out supporters and the Arsenal board.

“Le Professeur” enjoyed a gracious long good-bye after a sixth-place finish – his worst in his lengthy tenure at Arsenal – and a semifinal exit in the Europa League.

Given the lack of big names in the coaching market – Tito Villanova reportedly priced himself out of a potential hiring while ex-Arsenal players-turned coaches Mikael Arteta and Patrick Vieira were considered too green – Emery seems a vanilla hire who does not address the lofty ambitions of a club who last won a title with “The Invincibles” in 2004.

Emery won three consecutive Europa League titles at Sevilla from 2014-16, but his two seasons at Paris-Saint Germain were nothing spectacular. He won the treble last season as Ligue 1 winner, but PSG were eliminated in the round of 16 in both of his Champions League campaigns – a place that does not sit well with the Arsenal fan base considering Wenger made his exit in that round in his last seven appearances.

“We need to work together and the first way to do that is by finding the performance,” Emery told supporters in his first meeting with them per The Times. “I want a team with energy and I want players to give their all on the pitch.

“I want to give them the habits that I want to see from them in each match. I want to see them demonstrate these habits in every game and give their all. … It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just a different moment for this club.”

Emery does not lack for talent and has one of the best attacks in the Premier League in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexander Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey. It will be Aubameyang’s first full season at the Emirates after coming over from Borussia Dortmund in the January window and making a huge impact with 10 goals in 13 league matches. Ramsey, though, could give way to teenager Matteo Guendozui due to a knock.

Ozil, who spent last season and summer as a lightning rod of all criticisms leveled at the club and country level following Germany’s flameout in group play at the World Cup this summer, retired from international play after a falling out with the DFB amid cries of racism regarding his Turkish heritage and is intent on taking out a lost summer on Premier League opponents.

The defence – a sore spot all of last season as Wenger vacillated between three and four-man backlines – appears set to be four under Emery, who likely will use a 4-3-3 for this match after experimenting with a 4-4-2 in preseason. Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulous will pair in central defence, though Ainsley Maitland-Niles could be the weak link in this match at left back since Nacho Monreal is out through injury.

Newcomer and Uruguay international Lucas Torreira will anchor the midfield with Ramsey while Ozil is likely to push forward in attack with the front three. There is also likely to be a new goalkeeper as summer signing Bernd Leno has seen extensive action in the preseason over incumbent Petr Cech.

While Arsenal have had a summer of upheaval, Manchester City (32-4-2) have quietly gone about their business preparing their bid to be the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won three straight Premier League titles from 2007-09.

The Citizens are better than even-money favourites to repeat after coasting to the title by 19 points over eternal rivals United. They demolished almost every single-season record in the 26-year history of the Premier League – most notably being the first 100-point top-flight team in English football history – but the anger of a Champions League quarterfinal elimination by Liverpool is all the motivation Guardiola needs.

“The best way is to think ‘What’s next,'” Guardiola told City’s official website. “Focus on what we have done in our job, the desire to improve. We are still hungry and we hold them to be better and better players. It’s not easy (to repeat) but we’re going to try. It’s unrealistic to think about it early, the best way to do it is game-by-game.”

City had 16 players at the World Cup, the most of any Premier League team, and they are at various stages of match-fit. One of those players, Sergio Aguero, is in form after bagging a brace in their 2-0 victory over Chelsea in the Community Shield last Sunday at Wembley.

One player who did not go to Russia and could factor large in this match is Riyad Mahrez. He was the lone summer signing for City, who finally pried the Algeria international from Leicester City for £60 million after a January deal fell through. He further adds to a staggering wealth of talent in attack that includes Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus.

“He’s ready,” Guardiola said after observing Mahrez throughout City’s preseason tour. “I think he understands what we’re looking for, he played completely differently at Leicester. We have to give it time.”

Guardiola could use a 4-1-4-1 formation for this game as left back Benjamin Mendy returns after missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury. John Stones, who was one of England’s best players at the World Cup, is expected to pair with Aymeric Laporte in central defence in front of Ederson.

Aguero would be the lone striker up front, with De Bruyne and Silva the central midfielders while Sane and Mahrez man the flanks. Fernandinho would clean up in front of the back four as the defensive midfielder.

City won all three matches between the teams, with a 3-0 hiding in the Carabao Cup final in late February bookending their league victories. The twin 3-0 thrashings four days apart galvanised Arsenal’s board in moving Wenger to the exit, as the second defeat was in front of wide patches of empty seats at the Emirates.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester City are solid 17/20 favorites to win while Arsenal and a draw return 14/5 odds. City get a better return on investment with 21/10 odds on a win with both teams scoring a goal, and for the real daring, there are 3/1 odds for a Citizens win coupled with the over of 3.5 goals.

Aguero leads the way for first-choice goal-scorers at 10/3 odds, followed by Jesus (4/1) and Aubameyang (5/1). Sane, Sterling and Mahrez all lurk just behind the Arsenal striker at 11/2. Aguero’s brace in the Community Shield also make him an even-money bet to score during the match.

PREDICTION

It has been mainly optimistic in north London in terms of Arsenal’s preseason results. The Gunners ruthlessly walloped Emery’s old team PSG around draws against Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, splitting results via penalties.

But now comes the real test, one that Emery probably would not have minded being pushed back until after the first international break to better get a sense of his team. Even an A/B mix of City players severely outclassed Chelsea in the Community Shield, and as this team likely will range closer to “A” than “B,” it could be another long night for the Gunners at the Emirates.

What will be curious to see about City is to examine “how” they will be better than last season. It may not take the form of losing only two matches in league play as they likely will finish with fewer than 100 points. Guardiola has talked little about Champions League and the motivation of crashing out to Liverpool in the quarterfinals compared to chasing history, and that choice to look forward will serve this team well.

In the end, there is likely just too much class for Arsenal to overcome this soon in the season, though they should give City some moments of bother in the final third.

PREDICTION: MANCHESTER CITY 3, ARSENAL 1

2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester City (August 6)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 20th and final preview of 20 EPL teams in 20 days ahead of Friday’s league-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City. Links to previous teams’ previews can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER CITY CITIZENS

Manager: Pep Guardiola (Hire Date: July 1, 2016)
Tenure Length: 10th/20 in Premier League and 30th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 32-4-2, 100 points, 1st in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 106
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-79
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 17 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2002
Last Relegation: 
2001 (Premier League to First Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Quarterfinal loss (Liverpool)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Champions
2017-18 FA Cup: Fifth-round loss (Wigan Athletic)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester City sputtered out of the gate, having to grind out a 2-0 victory at promoted Brighton and Hove Albion to start the season and then was held to a 1-1 draw by Everton to open its home slate as it played 44 minutes down a man after Kyle Walker was given his second yellow card late in the first half.

Then came the winning. A lot of winning.

City reeled off 11 consecutive victories across all competitions with some ridiculous score lines along the way. 5-0 over Liverpool. 4-0 at Feyenoord to open Champions League play. 6-0 at Watford. 5-0 versus Crystal Palace. 7-2 over Stoke City. The Citizens trailed for all of eight minutes of the 990 during their winning streak, which finally came to the end in the Carabao Cup against Wolverhampton, which pushed them to penalties before falling.

Another eight victories followed before a 2-1 loss at Shakhtar Donetsk in a dead rubber to complete Champions League play marked City’s first loss of the 2017-18 season. The good news was that it came at the perfect time ahead of their first Manchester derby at Old Trafford, where Guardiola’s men recorded a 2-1 victory to open up an 11-point chasm between the teams after 16 matches.

City set a Premier League record with their 15th consecutive league win by thrashing Swansea City 4-0 in Wales. They would push that run to 18 matches before a scoreless draw at Crystal Palace on New Year’s Eve in which the flash point was a horrific challenge on Kevin De Bruyne by Palace’s Jason Puncheon in the final minutes that the Belgium international was fortunate to escape serious injury from.

The dream of matching Arsenal’s “Invincibles” would end a fortnight later at Anfield, where Liverpool ran riot for a nine-minute stretch and scored three times to take a 4-1 lead before holding out for a 4-3 victory. That would be a foreshadowing of things to come not in the Premier League race, which was being readily conceded to City despite it being only mid-January, but in Champions League.

Guardiola’s charges would resume their winning ways, reeling off four on the bounce and reaching the Carabao Cup final before a 1-1 draw at always-stubborn Burnley. Manchester City made quick work of Swiss side FC Basel in the round of 16 in Champions League play, winning 4-0 on the road in the first leg to render their 2-1 second-leg defeat moot.

In between, however, was a shocking FA Cup exit at the hands of Wigan Athletic, which brought back the nightmares of losing to a relegated Latics side in the 2013 final. Manchester City took its frustrations of that loss out on Arsenal in emphatic fashion, winning the Carabao Cup final 3-0 at Wembley before handing out another 3-0 beating at the Emirates four days later.

Now champion-elect, Manchester City drew arguably the worst of the remaining Champions League sides in Liverpool, though it was still a winnable tie. Guardiola, however, made his largest mistake of the entire season in the first leg at Anfield, inexplicably starting Ilkay Gundogan as a holding midfielder over Raheem Sterling.

Within a half-hour, Liverpool turned Anfield into the vaunted cauldron it always has been for high-pressure matches and fashioned itself a 3-0 lead. The damage done, the Reds added insult to injury by holding that lead and putting up a clean sheet to make City do the heavy lifting in the second leg.

The hangover of that loss did not carry into the second Manchester derby as City attempted to become the first team to clinch a Premier League title in their 32nd match. The chance to do it against their eternal rivals United at home was a once in a lifetime opportunity that seemed to good to pass up.

For the first half-hour, it was exactly that as Vincent Kompany and Gundogan scored six minutes apart for a two-goal lead, and City nearly ran United out of the Etihad the remainder of the first half. But just as suddenly, the match swung red. Paul Pogba scored twice in two minutes, and Chris Smalling was first to a free kick and beat Ederson and both history and a title would have to wait as United salvaged some pride with a 3-2 victory.

There was no time to wallow, though, as Liverpool was coming to the Etihad and a three-goal deficit had to be overturned. Gabriel Jesus scored in the second minute, and City just applied pressure in waves at Liverpool looking for a second to further the momentum and gain everything to play for. They thought it came when Leroy Sane scored just before halftime, but it was incorrectly chalked off for offsides.

Guardiola went ballistic in complaining to referee Mateu Lahoz, earning himself an ejection at halftime. The combination of the disallowed goal and Guardiola’s thunder and banishment sapped City, who gave up a back-breaking goal to Mohamed Salah before the hour and another to Roberto Firmino late as Liverpool advanced 5-1 on aggregate.

All that was left for City was to play for history and a re-writing of the Premier League record book. They scored 12 goals in winning their next three matches, surpassing the century mark in a 4-1 hiding of West Ham United in their 35th match.

The Premier League presentation trophy was the highlight of a scoreless draw against Huddersfield Town, which all but secured a second season in the top flight with the valuable point, and it left City needing two wins to become the first Premier League team to achieve 100 points.

The first win was a straightforward 3-1 home victory over Brighton and Hove Albion, and the second took a little work. City left it very late as Jesus’ goal in the 94th minute provided the historic 1-0 victory at Southampton that made Guardiola’s side centurions. The 32nd win established a new Premier League record for victories, bettering the mark of Tottenham’s famous 1961 side.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester City Lineup.png

The frightening realisation for the rest of the Premier League, and by extension England for domestic cups and Europe for Champions League play is Guardiola can arguably flex his side into any formation and any lineup he wants on a match-to-match basis.

For argument’s sake, the XI presented here is based on a 4-3-3. Look at the names out there. Now consider the names missing: Bernardo Silva. Aymeric Laporte. New signing Riyad Mahrez. Gundogan. Danilo. Phil Foden. Benjamin Mendy barely played last season due to a torn ACL, yet it is well known he is one of the best at his position and still was good enough to make France’s roster this summer.

A serious case can be made the weakest backup link is Claudio Bravo between the sticks.

If Guardiola opts for a three-man backline, Kompany or Stones gets sacrificed, and given how well Stones played in Russia, it would be hard to sit him even at the expense of Kompany, who himself had a solid run for Belgium when he was 100 percent. This is a team that is going to have 60 percent possession or better in all but a handful of league matches and domestic cups, and Guardiola will relish in the challenge of tinkering his team between those set-ups.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

After spending and spending and spending the past two seasons to build a team Guardiola was confident could run a two-track course between Premier League and Champions League, this summer was refined and specific: Welcome, Mahrez.

The Algeria international’s arrival from Leicester City nearly came in the January window, but the deal feel through late. Six months and £60 million later, City finally got their man — arguably one of the most creative playmakers in the Premier League and the world.

What makes the move interesting is it is entirely possible Mahrez is little more than a rotation player on both tracks except for early in the season as players recover from World Cup responsibilities and again starting in December when the fixtures come fast and heavy. Still, his quality cannot be denied in being the driving force of Leicester City’s run to the Premier League title in 2016 and quarterfinal appearance in the subsequent Champions League.

Mahrez totaled 40 goals and 29 assists in all competitions in his last three seasons with the Foxes and was one of four players to rack up at least 35 goals and 20 assists in league play in that stretch along with Dele Alli, Roberto Firmino and Alexis Sanchez.

More grating to City’s rivals is the Citizens recouped more than half of that outlay by loaning out some of their promising younger players. Third-choice keeper Angus Gunn commanded almost £15 million in going to Southampton, while defenders Pablo Maffeo and Angelino nearly matched that total between them on loans to VfB Stuttgart and PSV Eindhoven, respectively.

Veteran midfielder Yaya Toure was released, and backup keeper Joe Hart is reportedly close to finalising a move to Burnley, which is in need at the position following a long-term shoulder injury to Nick Pope.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Kevin De Bruyne (MF)

There is something about De Bruyne’s game that borders on ethereal. If it’s not the direct pass that leads to the goal, he often gets the “hockey assist” in making the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal.

Whether it is his vision to make passes few see, let alone successfully make, or his sense of timing when to take over a match in terms of trying to score, the Belgium international rightfully created a split in PFA voting last year and would have been a worthy winner had he not finished runner-up to another worthy winner in Liverpool’s Salah.

De Bruyne had a solid World Cup campaign in leading Belgium to a third-place finish in Russia, and with an embarrassment of riches around him in Aguero, Sterling, Jesus and now Mahrez, De Bruyne’s biggest threat comes in the form of being able to pop up anywhere in the opposing half of the pitch to create a scoring chance for others or fashion one for himself.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to become the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won the last of its three straight titles in 2009. The Citizens are 8/11 odds to win it all again, and there are ridiculous odds for top-four (1/20) and top-six finishes (1/500).

It is a little closer to even money Guardiola’s team will be atop the table on Christmas Day at 10/11, and for top-two finishes, City have 3/1 odds to finish 1-2 ahead of Liverpool and 9/2 with United.

Aguero is listed fifth in odds to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 8/1, with Jesus sixth at 14/1. Sane and Sterling are further long shots at 33/1. Player of the Year odds is where it gets interesting as De Bruyne is a slight favorite at 8/1, Sane fifth at 14/1 and David Silva seventh (16/1).

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 12 — Arsenal (6th) A
Aug. 19 — Huddersfield Town (16th) H
Aug. 25 — Wolverhampton (N/A) A
Sept. 1 — Newcastle United (10th) H
—————
April 20 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
April 27 — Burnley (7th) A
May 4 — Leicester City (10th) H
May 12 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A

OUTLOOK

For a team that won the Premier League by 19 points, reached 100, set all sorts of single-season records (it’s easier to just link to the Wiki page rather than add 200 superfluous words and numbers) and also registered a double by also winning the Carabao Cup, there is still unfinished business for Guardiola and Manchester City.

Some of that was self-inflicted by the Spaniard, whose decision to start Gundogan in the first leg of City’s Champions League quarterfinal at Liverpool ran counter to everything he had been building on the blue side of Manchester to that very point, and he paid for it.

Dearly.

Guardiola will not be prone to overthinking this time around, but it will also not be as easy to repeat as champions either. There is always a bizarre variable that comes off a World Cup summer, and while City have more than enough depth to rotate players to address any matchup issue Guardiola may perceive, there will be a creeping unknown of sorts until they actually play the matches and get through them.

Additionally, the primary foil in the Premier League is no longer City’s hated rivals across town, but is indeed, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. Manchester City had five meaningful losses all of last season — the Champions League ones to Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Basel had nothing at stake — and three of them came to Liverpool.

Further, the one victory over the Reds can be talked away as a match turned on its head when Mane got his red card and a 1-0 game turned into a 5-0 laugher. Liverpool has spent… and spent… and spent to get its team up to a point where it can at least attempt to stand with Manchester City, and it will be upon the reigning champion to knock the Reds down once more.

The success of teams hitting on the counter at the World Cup will probably result in a renewed effort to do so among clubs who play Manchester City. It is nothing new for the Citizens to face, but it will be something to watch. Guardiola loves a game of cat-and-mouse like few other managers, and with his legacy on the line as he enters his third season at the Etihad, expect a cagey and focused Spaniard on the sideline as he hunts glory and beyond.

PREDICTED FINISH

1st place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City

2018 World Cup Semifinal Preview — Croatia vs. England (Match 62)

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

Croatia
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)

England
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′)

FORMATIONS

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.

BETTING ANGLE

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.

PREDICTION

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

UP NEXT

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.

 

2018 World Cup Round of 16 Preview — Colombia vs. England (Match 56)

England may have lost the battle to win Group G, but it hopes being placed in the more navigable half of the knockout round bracket will help it win the World Cup war for the first time since 1966 as it faces Colombia in the round of 16 on Tuesday in Moscow.

While the Three Lions did not go about trying to lose their group finale against Belgium, which was for all intents and purposes a dead rubber since both teams had already secured passage, a lineup with eight changes to it did not set the world alight in a bid to sweep Group H.

Facing a similarly fashioned B squad from Belgium, England failed to create many quality scoring chances as a moment of brilliance from Adnan Januzaj, a player the England FA tried to woo in terms of citizenship for its senior team, dealt the Three Lions a 1-0 defeat that consigned them to the runner-up spot.

Not that it was a horrible outcome. On the surface, should England progress from this tricky tie, only unfancied Sweden or Switzerland would stand between it and a first World Cup semifinal since 1990. Compare that to Belgium, which has arguably the easiest match in the round of 16 against Japan before a potential murderers’ row of Brazil, Mexico, France and Uruguay between itself and the final.

The other truth of the loss to Belgium showed just how much Gareth Southgate’s squad picks itself. In fact, one can make the argument he now knows his top 15 players as Marcus Rashford, teenager Trent Arnold-Alexander, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jamie Vardy are his top options off the bench.

While Loftus-Cheek has been serviceable in the place of injured Dele Alli, there is a certain amount of creativity lacking in the middle without the dynamic Tottenham Hotspur midfielder.

After watching the Belgium match from the bench, Golden Boot frontrunner Harry Kane looks to to add to his haul of five goals. Defender John Stones has added two as England has been lethal on dead-ball pieces in Russia, scoring five of its eight goals via corners and penalties.

Colombia, looking to return to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive World Cup, grinded its way to the top of Group H after losing its opening match to Japan in which it played a man down for all but three minutes. Los Cafeteros rebounded by steamrolling Poland and then showed their mettle by overcoming the loss of star James Rodriguez to defeat Senegal.

Rodriuguez’s calf will be the subject of international intrigue as it has limited the Bayern Munich attacking midfielder to 152 minutes in Russia as he came off the bench for the final 30 minutes in the loss to Japan, played the full 90 versus Poland and then was forced off when he aggravated the injury after a half-hour against Senegal. Even in that short span, Rodriguez assisted on two of Colombia’s five goals, including a perfectly weighted curling ball to Juan Cuadrado as he completed the scoring versus Poland.

While the Colombian federation released a statement saying an MRI revealed only swelling but no tear in the muscle, Rodriguez did not practice with the team Friday or Saturday, and there is justifiable worry about how effective he can be and how long he would be able to play if available.

Los Cafeteros’ trip to the final eight in Brazil four years ago, where they lost to the host in controversial fashion, is their best showing in five prior World Cup appearances.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Colombia
June 19 — Colombia 1, Japan 2 (Kagawa 6′ (PK), Quintero 39′, Osako 73′)
June 24 — Colombia 3, Poland 0 (Mina 40′, Falcao 70′, Cuadrado 75′)
June 28 — Colombia 1, Senegal 0 (Mina 74′)

England
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′)

FORMATIONS

Colombia is expected to stick to its 4-2-3-1 formation. Even if he is not 100 percent, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Rodriguez does not play given the stakes and his competitiveness. If “Big Game James” does not start, Jose Izquerido would be the most viable alternative given he got the call in Los Cafeteros’ opener versus Japan.

Midfielder Abel Aguilar is questionable with an adductor injury that sidelined him from the group finale versus Senegal. Rodriguez, midfielder Wilmar Barrios and left back Johan Mojica are all on yellow cards for Colombia.

England will press on in its 3-5-2 set-up, and with Alli healthy, he is restored to the midfield for Loftus-Cheek. The other seven changes Southgate rang in for the Belgium match will be rung out as the usual backline of Stones flanked by Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker will protect Jordan Pickford, with wide backs Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier bombing forward when available.

Kane leads the line with Raheem Sterling underneath, while Jesse Lingard serves as the link to midfielder Jordan Henderson and Alli. Loftus-Cheek and Walker are the only players sitting on a yellow for the Three Lions.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Colombia — Yerry Mina (D)

A towering figure on the back line at 6-foot-5, Mina has buried a pair of headers for Colombia’s match-winning goals, including one off a corner by Juan Quintero for the only goal against Senegal. Primarily a reserve for Barcelona after his January arrival from Palmerias, Mina has put his practice time to good use as has five goals in 14 international appearances for Los Cafeteros.

England — Raheem Sterling (F)

While Kane has flourished in his first World Cup, Sterling has yet to take off in his second. The speedy second striker has yet to find the international success that lifted his game at Manchester City this past season but does have an assist in his two matches in Russia. England will need him to provide a counterweight through the middle against Colombia’s speed on the wings.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1998 (France) England 2, Colombia 0 (Anderton 20′, Beckham 29′)

Darren Anderton opened the scoring with a sharp–angled volley in the penalty area and David Beckham followed with a world-class free kick as England grabbed control of the match in the first-half hour in Lens as it advanced to the knockout round with a convincing victory.

The Three Lions are unbeaten in five all-time matches (3-2-0) versus Colombia, with the most recent contest a 3-2 victory in New York in 2005 when Michael Owen recorded a hat trick.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Colombia is a slim favorite at 29/10 odds, with England close at 21/10. The odds of the match going to penalties after a draw and further fraying the nerves of Three Lions supporters are currently 2/1.

Kane is a clear front-runner to score the first goal of the match at 3/1, with Vardy 9/2. Falcao is Colombia’s top option at 11/2 odds, while Rodriguez has notably longer odds to make it 1-0 at 8/1.

PREDICTION

One of the undercurrents of this match is that two of Colombia’s key outfield players, Cuadrado and striker Radamel Falcao, were Premier League flameouts — Cuadrado seeing just 13 matches at Chelsea while Falcao struggled on loans with both Chelsea and Manchester United before finding his niche at Monaco. They played exactly 11 minutes together for Chelsea in a loss to Manchester City in 2015, and 10 days later Cuadrado was shipped to Turin, where he has thrived and reached a Champions League final.

And the 32-year-old Falcao has plenty of urgency since this will be his lone World Cup with Los Cafeteros as a torn ACL cruelly ended his dream to be on the 2014 squad. He is joint-leader in shots with Quintero (5) and has a team-best three shots on goal as he looks to add to his record haul of 30 goals with Colombia.

A third, David Ospina, has been a much-criticized understudy to Petr Cech at Arsenal, never getting both gloves on the No. 1 jersey since arriving in north London in 2014 from Nice. While he has recorded back-to-back clean sheets since the opening-match disaster against Japan, there are still times he provides anxieties on crosses and corners for Colombia.

Since Southgate opted to use the B squad against Belgium, there is little to take away from what England is all about, an argument that can be extended throughout its group play considering the gulf in class between the Three Lions and both Tunisia and Panama.

Everyone is well-rested, everyone is available now that Alli has declared himself healthy, but is this team ready to step up against a higher caliber of competition? The first team has hardly suffered in Russia, with one goal conceded on a naive penalty and the other in garbage time after scoring six.

Pickford had some anxious moments versus Belgium, though there wasn’t much he could do about Januzaj’s strike. This will be the first time England’s three-man backline will be put to the test, and how the Everton keeper responds will go a long way in determing if the Three Lions make their first World Cup quarterfinals since 2006.

The adage is that young teams find ways to lose, and with Colombia sporting four players — Ospina, Rodriguez, Cuadrado and Carlos Sanchez — who have precious knockout round experience, the hedge here is Los Cafeteros find a way to edge out a game but naive England side.

Prediction: Colombia 2, England 1

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will play the winner of the Sweden-Switzerland match in the quarterfinals July 7 at Samara.