In one of the most anticipated semi-finals in recent history, Croatia go up against England in Moscow tonight for a place in Sunday’s World Cup final.
Zlatko Dalic’s side overcame hosts Russia in an amazing quarter-final in Sochi on Saturday, eventually winning on penalties after a 2-2 draw after extra time.
England’s route to the last four for the first time in 28 years was a lot smoother, as they brushed Sweden aside in Samara, with goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli securing a 2-0 win.
Right-back Sime Vrsaljko is out after suffering a knee injury against Russia, while Jordan Henderson and Jamie Vardy have both been declared fit after hamstring and groin issues, respectively.
Croatia are another side who have been labelled the ‘golden generation’ and were the dark horses of many before the tournament started.
Dalic has managed to steer the Vatreni impressively through the group stages but they barely got through their two knockout stage games, edging past both Denmark and Russia on penalties.
Their preparation has been disrupted somewhat by the sacking of Ognjen Vukojevic, a member of the coaching staff, who along with defender Domagoj Vida, posted a pro-Ukraine video on social media after their win over Russia.
The England squad know that they have a chance to become heroes and add to the huge hysteria at home by beating Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium tonight.
Gareth Southgate and his young side seem to have found the magic formula at this summer’s showpiece event to defy history and reach the last four for the first time since Italia ’90.
They now have arguably the biggest opportunity they will ever get of reaching a World Cup final but will have to battle hard to return to Moscow on Sunday against France.
Here are the individual battles that will be fought tonight. Whichever side wins the most of these will have a great chance to be playing in the final on Sunday.
Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren vs Harry Kane
England’s golden man Harry Kane has played against Dejan Lovren many times in the Premier League, and the Croatian centre-halves will need to be at their best to stop the tournament’s top scorer, especially from set pieces and crosses.
Luka Modric vs Jordan Henderson
Modric is arguably the world’s best central midfielder at present; pulling the strings in Real Madrid’s three consecutive Champions League wins. Henderson will be charged with marking the Croatian captain and he will need to keep his discipline in what will be a highly-charged game.
John Stones and Harry Maguire vs Mario Mandzukic (in both boxes!)
John Stones and Harry Maguire have been pleasant surprises for England at the World Cup; showing calmness and maturity at the back as well as weighing in with important goals. The majority of England’s goals have come from set pieces, which Croatia will surely have studied, while a physical battle with striker Mario Mandzukic will be one they will relish.
Ivan Perisic vs Kieran Trippier
The formation deployed by England has allowed Tottenham’s Kieran Trippier to have a fantastic tournament; he has been great going forward and has done his fair share going back too. He will need to have his defensive head on against one of the world’s best out-and-out wingers in Perisic, who will hug the touchline and send in cross after cross for Mandzukic.
Zlatko Dalic vs Gareth Southgate
Zlatko Dalic was only appointed towards the end of Croatia’s qualifying campaign, but has managed to steer a team of big names to the semi-final and maintain their dark horse tag. Southgate is similar to Dalic in the sense that he has managed to steer an unfancied team to the last four while sticking to his principles – but can he hatch a plan to stop Modric and keep England playing the way they have been? Substitutes will be key in what will be a tight and nervy match.
England vs History
Arguably a bigger opponent than any Croatian on the field in Moscow. Can England hold their nerve? The Three Lions have only ever made one World Cup final – the winning campaign in 1966. Whatever happens tonight, this squad will be remembered for years to come – but they have a shot at making themselves immortal – can they do it?