Croatia may have a wealth of midfield talent at their disposal but there are weaknesses in their side that England can exploit in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final.
Croatia’s starting line-up for the quarter-final against Russia came from 11 different club sides, ranging from Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus to Besiktas, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim.
The likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic are undoubtedly top players who have starred for leading European teams for many years.
England 10/1 to win in extra time
However, doubts remain as to whether Zlatko Dalic can guide Croatia to the World Cup final, particularly as they have needed penalty shoot-outs to get past limited teams like Denmark and Russia in the two knockout rounds.
Tiredness may well be a factor as Croatia have needed extra-time and penalties in their last two games, while England were able to stroll through the closing stages of their quarter-final triumph against Sweden.
Croatia were very impressive in the group stage as they swatted Nigeria and Argentina aside before a second-choice line-up ended Iceland’s hopes of progressing to the knockout stages.
Croatia struggled at set-pieces against Russia, though, something England have been excellent at in the last month, and conceded an extremely scrappy goal against the Danes. Gareth Southgate’s team can exploit those weaknesses.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic appeared to be at fault for Russia’s first goal on Saturday before apparently suffering an injury later in the game. Even though he managed to carry on until the end of the shoot-out, the Monaco man could miss the England game.
Mandzukic has also played despite appearing to be struggling with an injury, but he does not seem to be anywhere near his best and if the Juventus striker is not on top form on Wednesday, Croatia’s attack will lack a focal point.
England 7/1 to score a penalty
Although Croatia were tipped as potential dark horses before the tournament began, they almost didn’t make it to Russia. After losing to Iceland and Turkey and then being held to a draw by Finland, Ante Cacic was axed just nine months ago and succeeded by Dalic.
At the time there was a real danger that Croatia would not qualify for the World Cup although they managed to finish second in their group behind Iceland and then defeated Greece in the play-offs.
In contrast, England’s progress to Russia was serene but even so hopes of reaching the semi-finals just four weeks ago seemed like a pipe dream.
But Southgate’s team have responded to their critics by producing some inventive and well-organised football, with a young squad seemingly playing without nerves.
The 2-0 quarter-final victory against Sweden was a rarity for England fans – a straightforward win with few dramas – and was even more impressive as it came just four days after the nail-biting penalty shoot-out victory against Colombia.
Harry Kane has scored most of the goals but it is players like Jordan Pickford, Kieran Trippier and Harry Maguire who have come to the fore in the knockout stages.
A month ago none of them were household names but they are now potentially three hours of football away from replicating the feats of Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Gordon Banks.
England 27/20 to keep clean sheet
After being criticised for his performance in the forgettable 1-0 defeat to Belgium, Everton goalkeeper Pickford has been immense, making an outstanding save to keep out Carlos Bacca’s penalty in the shoot-out victory against Colombia before making three great stops to ensure there was no way back for Sweden in the quarter-finals.
Trippier’s set-pieces have been exquisite but mention must also be made of Ashley Young, who was certainly not an overwhelmingly popular choice to start in place of Danny Rose.
However, the Manchester United man has produced some consistently good performances in Russia and his pinpoint delivery helped Maguire break the deadlock against Sweden.
Maguire has been a revelation as the Leicester City defender has been immense at the back, comfortable in possession when moving forward and a danger at set-pieces.
Maguire 35/4 to score anytime
There are plenty of reasons for England fans to cheer when the history books are opened as they show the Three Lions have recorded three big victories in their five previous meetings with the Croats.
However, the most famous match between the two teams was probably the one that took place at a soggy Wembley in November 2007.
Scott Carson struggled as the visitors opened up a 2-0 lead in the Euro 2008 qualifier and although England hit back to equalise, Mladen Petric grabbed a winner.
It proved to be the last game in charge of the national team for Steve McClaren, or the Wally with the Brolly as he was named after the match, as England failed to qualify for Euro 2008.
England 21/4 to win 1-0
There have been happier memories for England, though, as Wayne Rooney produced possibly his best performance in a Three Lions shirt in the 4-2 victory against Croatia at Euro 2004, while Theo Walcott scored a hat-trick in a memorable 4-1 win in Zagreb almost a decade ago.
Fabio Capello’s England thrashed Croatia 5-1 in a World Cup 2010 qualifier but a Paul Robinson blunder, when he allowed a Gary Neville back-pass to beat him, led to a 2-0 loss for England in 2006.
Matches between the two sides have often been full of incident and goals, but Wednesday’s match will surely be much tighter and a single goal may be enough to decide an encounter between two well-matched teams.
With a first World Cup final appearance in 52 years a possibility for England and Croatia on the cusp of reaching a first major final in their history, the stakes could not be higher.
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