England and Croatia are well aware of the golden opportunity that lies ahead of them on Wednesday. After a string of upsets and some good fortune with the bracket, they are 90 minutes away from a shock trip to the World Cup final. Both sets of players have the chance to earn legend status.
Here’s a look at some of the key themes heading in the second semi-final.
Can Jordan Henderson stifle Luka Modric’s influence in midfield?
Modric is arguably the best midfielder in the world and he makes this Croatia side tick. It will be critical for England, and Henderson in particular, to stay close to him. Gareth Southgate’s 3-5-2 formation will help to condense midfield areas but Modric is so adept at creating space for himself and moving the ball quickly. It is tough to imagine Croatia winning if Modric is subdued, and Henderson (who faced him in the Champions League final) is the likeliest to be tasked with limiting the Real Madrid man’s influence.
Is this the game that Raheem Sterling puts it all together?
Sterling has had his critics and did himself no favours with some of his finishing against Sweden, but overall he has been an important player for England. His pace terrified the Swedes on Saturday, stretching their defence and opening gaps for his team-mates. It would surely just take one goal to see his confidence fully restored, and Wednesday would be the perfect time to put together a complete performance. Croatia are well organized and will deny Sterling space to turn and dribble, but Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida will have a tough time keeping up if they are dragged into wide areas.
Can Croatia snuff out England’s threat from set pieces?
Between Lovren, Vida and Mario Mandzukic, Croatia have some big bodies to match up with England at corners and free kicks. But it is the choreography, along with the delivery from Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young, that has made Southgate’s side so prolific from set pieces. This will surely be a big part of England’s game plan again. The Swedes knew all about the threat but still succumbed to Harry Maguire’s fine header.
Can Croatia rediscover their group stage form?
The Croatians’ 3-0 win over Argentina in the group stage elevated them to contender status. Looking back now, that result may have told us more about Argentina than Croatia. Modric and company have laboured in the knockout rounds, needing penalty shootouts to get past Denmark and Russia. They will hope to rediscover their more fluent style of play against England.
Who will handle the nerves better?
This is where Croatia may feel that they have an advantage. Modric and Ivan Rakitic are no strangers to big games and Lovren just played in the Champions League final too. That might mean that the Croatians settle quicker. But England’s key men – Harry Kane, Henderson, John Stones and so on – have played well in pressure situations, and the whole team found their stride quickly in the quarter-final. That said, England have not trailed in this tournament and an early goal for Croatia might cause a wobble or two.
Prediction: England 2-1 Croatia (AET)