The mania that swept the country after England beat Sweden might have just about calmed down by the time their semi-final kicks off on Wednesday evening. This is the first time England have reached the last four at a World Cup since 1990, and only the third time in the history of the tournament.
A combination of fortune and overperformance has guided England this far. The dream of a first World Cup final since 1966 is just 90 minutes of football away, and against an opponent that England are favourites to beat.
Croatia are the best side England have had to face yet on paper. Their performances since they thumped an Argentina side in disarray have not lived up to expectation.
They’ve required penalties to get past Denmark and Russia, and not exactly set the world alight in the process. This is a huge opportunity for the Croatians too, however. This is likely the last major tournament with many of their star players at their prime.
It’s a first trip to the World Cup semi-finals since the famous group of 1994, and England are less challenging opponents than many would have expected to face in the last four pre-tournament.
Croatia’s midfield is the obvious focus. Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic (who will likely return to the team) form one of the best triumvirates in world football.
All three are versatile, and capable of changing the game with a defensive splitting pass or line-breaking run.
England’s trio of Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard will have opportunity to get space behind the Croatia midfield, though. The trio have been solid defensively, pressing well so far this tournament.
Croatia’s midfielders are capable of playing through that press, however, which could expose England. Henderson to pick up a booking at 4/1 is a good price.
The flip side is Croatia do not play a natural sitting midfielder. Alli, Lingard and Harry Kane will look to exploit that gap between the lines.
The darting runs of Alli and Lingard off the ball have been crucial for England to create space, they will be even more important in this one, particularly if England can play in transition. Alli at 7/2 to give an assist looks a great price.
While Croatia’s play in the final third has been lacking for much of the tournament, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic are still going to test England unlike Sweden did.
Having Kyle Walker and Kieran Tripper on the right of defence should help to nullify Perisic, but Mandzukic – who often drops into midfield – could be difficult to pick up.
The Juventus forward is a threat aerially, when he actually makes it into the box. Fortunately, England have their latest hero, Harry Maguire, to deal with any crosses.
Maguire has won more aerial duels than any other player left in the tournament but could be vulnerable if Croatia manage to drag him to defend in wide areas.
Ashley Young has been part of the reason Maguire has been such a colossus. Young has a key role to play at both ends of the pitch; he must protect Maguire and provide width for England.
The Manchester United man showed a greater willingness to use his left foot against Sweden, something England need more of if they are to stretch the pitch sufficiently.
Both teams will see this matchup as a positive after the more defensive-minded teams they have faced so far.
England took advantage when Sweden left any space in behind, and the exceptional runs of Raheem Sterling will be key again in this one.
Sterling has done so much right so far in the World Cup, it’s a matter of time until he gets that decisive breakthrough to quieten many of the critics. He’s a great price at 8/1 to open the scoring.
Croatia have underwhelmed so far but have the individual quality that could swing a match like this. Going by the form book, though, England are the pick to win this one.
Gareth Southgate’s team have been the better side in this tournament and should make another step to ending their 52 years of hurt.
TIP: Raheem Sterling to score and England to win @ 6/1
CORRECT SCORE: Croatia 1-2 England (Priced at 19/2 with 888sport)
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*