Croatia v England: Where the game will be won and lost

World Cup 2018 By: Linus Onyeze | 09/07/2018

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Croatia have taken one step towards matching the achievement of their team from the 1998 World Cup, who reached the semifinals before losing to 2-1 to France and then beating Holland by the same scoreline to win the third-place match and that on its own – considering it was their debut appearance – has gone down in the annals of history. Although the class of 2018 is yet to match that, they also have the chance of surpassing that feat, when they face England on Wednesday.

The English are also not without their own hopes and aspirations. This will be their first semifinal appearance since 1990, and they are even dreaming of matching 1966, when they hosted and won. And this is where it gets interesting, this will be their toughest challenge at World Cup 2018.

Without taking anything away from their progress to the last four of the World Cup, but the Three Lions have played Panama, Tunisia and a weakened Belgium side (a game they lost) during the group stages, before facing Colombia and Sweden in the round of 16 and quarterfinal respectively. To be fair, Colombia provided a good challenge and the game ended on penalty shootouts, where England prevailed.

But in the real sense of it, Croatia will be the toughest test they have faced at this World Cup and you think this might be where the bubble bursts for the English.

Gareth Southgate has set the Three Lions up nicely, and their passing and pressing game has been impressive, coupled with how successful they have been with playing out from the back and even if it could be argued they haven’t played against tougher opposition consecutively, it has worked for them and expect them to stick with the same 3-5-2 system on Wednesday.

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For the Croats, however, it has been different. They have faced Nigeria, Iceland and Argentina in the group phase, while playing against Denmark and hosts Russia in the round of 16 and quarterfinals respectively. You could say they have arguably played against more difficult opponents so far when compared with their English counterparts.

Zlatko Dalic has varied his team shape and system depending on the opposition but has mostly played a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. In typical fashion, he will most likely mirror his team to stifle England building from midfield, and it is in those areas that they have some advantage over the English. Dalic has often alternated between a holding midfield two of Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Rakitic or Luka Modric and Rakitic when playing the 4-2-3-1, with either Modric or Andrej Kramaric playing in the No 10 role.

On paper, Croatia have a more accomplished midfield compared to the English, whose 3-5-2 system have seen them play mostly with Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard – even if Alli and Lingard have often played further forward. Because of this, it is expected Croatia will line up with a 4-2-3-1 on Wednesday, with Modric partnering Rakitic and that move would obviously be to checkmate the runs of Lingard and Alli, and Kramaric in the No 10 role, and also loading Henderson.

Without the ball, England have been impressive as they won back possession almost immediately after, but they face Croatia side that is comfortable with ball and that is where it is left to be seen, the amount of work Lingard and Alli will do to track Modric and Kramaric from moving into dangerous positions when they have the ball. And it is in these duels that the winner and loser will likely emerge from in this tie.