England dreaming but Croatia set to provide biggest World Cup test
England is dreaming of a first World Cup final since 1966 but first, they must come through Wednesday’s semi-final at the Luzhniki Stadium against Croatia in what looks like their toughest test yet in Russia.
Excitement has reached fever-pitch levels back in England, with Gareth Southgate’s young team making it to the last four of a major tournament for the first time since Euro ’96, and for the first time at a World Cup since Italy in 1990.
Both of those runs ended in defeats on penalties, but there is a belief that something could be different this time.
England has already won a shootout in Russia, against Colombia in the last 16. And a young, likeable side with an eminently sensible and humble manager in Southgate has captured the hearts of a nation.
Can Southgate now become the first manager to win a World Cup semi-final with England on foreign soil as he bids ultimately to match the achievement of Alf Ramsey’s side?
“We were not certain what this team might be capable of,” Southgate admitted to ITV, mindful of England’s many recent failures.
They had won just one knockout match at a major tournament in 16 years before coming to Russia, a 1-0 victory against Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
“We believed in its potential, and I think the games that we’ve prepared for, we had a belief we would win, but there is still pressure in all of those matches, so I’m really pleased with how the team have emerged and developed.”
Southgate has been just the voice of reason England have needed to prevent anyone from getting too carried away.
For all of the hype around England, they have yet to come up against one of the really big guns at the World Cup.
They beat Tunisia in their tournament opener thanks to a late Harry Kane goal, brushed aside a poor Panama, edged out Colombia on penalties and easily beat Sweden in the quarter-finals.
Their one defeat came against Belgium in their final group game, in a match between two essentially reserve sides.
The challenge posed by Croatia is likely to be more demanding, especially as Zlatko Dalic’s side features one of the best midfield pairings around, in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
Real Madrid playmaker Modric, who was at Tottenham Hotspur earlier in his career at the same time a young Kane was starting out, has been a particular inspiration. AFP