Only Croatia now stand between England and a place in their first World Cup final in over half a century when the two sides meet in their semi-final in Moscow on Wednesday (7pm live on ITV1).
Expectations were not particularly high coming into the tournament, but here England are, in the last four, with the likes of Brazil, Germany and Spain already eliminated and a winnable match against an inconsistent Croatia ahead of them.
Gareth Southgate’s side booked their semi-final place with a comfortable 2-0 win against Sweden on Saturday. Harry Maguire rose well to head home from an Ashley Young corner on the half-hour, and Dele Alli then found space inside the area to convert Jesse Lingard’s cross for the second before the hour. It was a disconcertingly straightforward triumph.
Sweden did have a few chances, with Jordan Pickford making a couple of very good saves, but England were otherwise sturdy in their defensive work and relatively progressive in possession. Jordan Henderson impressed at the base of the midfield, and the winning margin could have been greater had Raheem Sterling been a bit sharper in front of goal.
It was another very solid performance. England haven’t exactly thrilled, but everyone seems to have a clear idea of what they should be doing and there is a decent structure there, albeit one that is yet to be tested by one of the top teams. Eight of England’s 11 goals to date have come from set pieces – five from free-kicks and corners and three from penalties – but if that is what it takes, there will be no embarrassment about progressing in that manner.
Southgate, his staff and the players have consistently said that they are simply taking things match by match. There is a certain assurance to what England have done so far that seems to back up that assertion. But now, with a first semi-final since 1990 ahead of them, there must be a growing realisation of the enormity of what they could potentially achieve.
Croatia will make for difficult opponents, but England will at least be able to count upon a physical advantage. Croatia come into the match on the back of going through extra-time and penalties in both their last-16 and quarter-final encounters. In the latter, against Russia, a number of their players were really struggling during the additional 30 minutes of play.
It was a match that swung this way and that. Russia went ahead, only for Croatia to equalise before the interval. During the second half, Croatia hit the post. They then went ahead in the first period of extra-time, only for Russia to fight back and level the scores again with five minutes to play. In the shootout, Croatia emerged as 4-3 winners.
It was not just a physically draining experience. Coach Zlatko Dalic broke down in tears at the end of the penalty shootout, and his words afterwards made it clear that his side will again give everything they have on Wednesday. He said they would be very motivated to go forth into battle again, with a first-ever World Cup final appearance within their sights.
It is difficult to get a handle on how good this Croatia side are. They had their struggles in qualifying, and only made the World Cup by virtue of defeating Greece in their playoff tie. They have some superb players, including midfielders Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric, and their performance against Argentina in the group stage was excellent, but they have not been as impressive in securing shootout wins over Denmark and Russia in the knockout rounds.
They are certainly a better team than they were the last time they met England, in qualification for the 2010 World Cup. There, England won 5-1 at home and 4-1 away. There is much less difference between the sides this time around, and Wednesday’s match could well prove to be a tight and attritional affair.
However, with less fatigue in their legs and an ability to create chances from set-piece situations consistently, there are reasons to believe that England’s surprising World Cup run can continue. It will certainly not be as comfortable as the Sweden match, but England can be fancied to get the win and progress to the final.
Our Preview’s England vs. Croatia Betting Tips Verdict
Taking a look at the odds from the top UK sports betting sites, this is our preview’s advised betting tip for this World Cup semi-final:
- Bet on England to win (in normal time) @ best odds of 11/8 with Betfred or Betfair.
- Click for the latest England vs Croatia match odds and all World Cup betting.