World Cup 2018 has been brilliant for all manner of reasons; not least the unpredictability that has allowed England and Croatia to progress to the semi-finals.
If we take our ‘it’s coming home’ hats off, we have to conclude that the Three Lions’ route to the last four has been bizarre….
So far they have played five matches in the competition, with two against ‘pub teams’ in Tunisia and Panama, the third a game they didn’t want to win, the fourth against a capable outfit missing their best player, and the fifth against a Sweden team crippled by fear to the extent that they couldn’t progress out of their own half of the pitch without coming out in a cold sweat.
That’s not to do a disservice to England, who have been very professional in their work. The attention to detail that Gareth Southgate’s men have shown at set pieces is second to none, but then we must remember they have only scored twice all tournament from open play.
Mind you, it’s not as if Croatia have blown people away either. They have failed to defeat mediocre sides in Denmark and Russia in 120 minutes each, needing penalties on both occasions. The form they showed in the group stage has dissipated rather markedly.
The scene is set in Moscow, and one of these teams will make history by reaching the World Cup final. But who will it be?
Kane Able to Dominate Lovren
Cast your mind back, if you can, to Sunday October 22.
You may just recall Tottenham taking on Liverpool at Wembley in a Premier League game, which many thought would be an even contest and a cracking one to watch at that.
Instead, it was horrendously one-sided, and a key reason for that was Harry Kane’s complete and utter domination of Dejan Lovren in the Liverpool defence.
The Croat was at fault for two goals, was completely incapable of dealing with Kane’s physicality and suffered the ultimate indignity of the first-half substitution, with Jurgen Klopp almost like a boxing cornerman throwing in the towel to stop his fighter taking more punishment.
There is absolutely no reason why the England man can’t outmuscle his marker once more on Wednesday, and that’s good news because this Croatia defence isn’t the best anyway….and made worse by the absence of Atletico Madrid man Sime Vrsaljko, who is injured.
Magic Modric Needs Help
In drawing up your shortlist for the Player of the Tournament thus far, Luka Modric would presumably feature high up on many lists.
The midfield schemer has been the heartbeat of his side, creating the vast majority of their best moments, popping up with two goals of his won and netting a brace of all-important spot kicks in his side’s penalty shootout victories.
But one criticism is that he has been playing too deep in Croatia’s set-up, picking up balls from the defence rather than affecting play in the final third.
If the Croats are to beat England on Wednesday, they will need to come up with a system that gets the best from their playmaker.
Two teams that have struggled to conjure up goals from open play will lock horns on Wednesday, and the feeling is that this will be a tense, low-scoring encounter with so much obviously at stake.
England’s best chances might come from set pieces – or Harry Kane if he can steamroller Lovren once more, while Croatia have lacked ambition and imagination in their knockout matches so far.
Who will handle the occasion better? And who will enjoy the best of the pivotal moments? Those are arguably the defining questions, and while it is hard to overlook the quality of Croatia’s attacking ‘spine’ (Modric-Rakitic-Mandzukic), you would argue that, man-for-man, England are the better side.
But then, if you want to play the percentages, you would note that of their four combined knockout phase matches, three have gone all the way to penalties.
It would be disastrous for the NHS if this game went to penalties – there would be a surge in the national blood pressure levels, but the evidence suggests a cagey affair in which one moment of magic or madness might take the spoils.
What must that have felt like for Gareth Southgate? To turn your own personal trauma – the missed penalty in the semi final of Euro 1996 – into a life lesson and use that life lesson to lead your nation to Victory ???????? pic.twitter.com/VEtD0Idcsp
— roger bennett (@rogbennett) July 3, 2018
So, for punters, the England Draw No Bet market is a fairly standard starting point at 8/13. The 90 minute draw, at 21/10, a slightly-more risky business.
Indeed, if you are of a ‘build your bet’ type persuasion, then the England/Draw Double Chance & Both Teams to Score (No) line has appeal at a combined 11/8.