England vs Croatia Preview: O Captain...My Captain...Lead me to glory...!
England and Croatia look up to their respective captains, Harry Kane and Luka Modric, to lead them into final
Moscow: It was the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and I was attending a workshop about Matryoshka Dolls - the traditional Russian dolls - in the City Press Centre. At that workshop, a journalist from a reputed English TV channel asked the artist, who was conducting the workshop, if she could paint him a portrait of Harry Kane on a doll as he thought that the England skipper would lead them to glory in Russia.
On the other hand, in every press conference, Croatian players have been asked about how good their captain Luka Modric is and they cannot stop saying good words about their leader.
The two separate incidences show how these two captains have led their sides from the front in their run-up to the semi-final. They now face each other at the Luzhniki Stadium here on Wednesday, where the winner of the match will play the final on Sunday against the winner of match between France and Belgium.
Modric, a former Tottenham Hotspur player, has pulled the strings from the middle of the park along with Ivan Rakitic as the duo have been unstoppable as they control the game for the Zlatko Dalic-coached team.
Meanwhile, Kane is leading the charts for the Golden Boot award with six goals against his name and has done a bulk of scoring for the Three Lions.
Croatia were taken to the penalty shootout by both Denmark and hosts Russia. Modric, 32, accepted that playing 240 minutes in space of six days would take a toll on him and his team-mates but expressed that they are ready to go the distance.
England on the other hand, had a straight-forward victory against Sweden after they won a knockout game in the penalties for the first time against Colombia in the second round. Those extra 30 minutes played in Sochi could very well come back to haunt Dalic and his men against much younger boys of Gareth Southgate.
England manager Southgate has deployed a 3-5-2 formation successfully so far in the tournament. Defenders Harry Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker have not just provided stability at the back but have pitched in with goals from the set-pieces as well.
Two wing-backs, Ashley Young and Kevin Trippier have kept opposition full-backs in check with their own forward runs and constant supply of crosses in the middle for target man Harry Kane and late surges by the likes of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.
The only concern for Southgate must be the poor form of Raheem Sterling, who has been wasteful to say the least, in front of the goal playing alongside skipper in front two.
Croatian gaffer, on the other hand, has shown more flexibility in his starting line-up as he has chosen his third man in midfield according to the situation to accompany Modric and Rakitic. He fielded striker Andrej Kramaric in the game against Russia to add more firepower up front, while opted for Marcelo Brozovic in the second round to give more control in the centre of the park. It would be worth noticing what tactics he uses to nullify the threat of English midfield where the players like to keep changing their positions.
On Monday, Croatia sacked their assistant coach Ognjen Vukojevic over the video message where he and defender Domagoj Vida spoke about 'Glory to Ukraine.' Although the assistant coach later apologised for his actions that hurt the feelings of Russians, Croatian Football Associated opted to part ways with their coach.
Vida, who scored an all important second goal against Russia, has gotten away with a stern warning from FIFA and is eligible to face England, but it is a kind of distraction that is enough to put any team off.
Come Wednesday, Croatia and England will look to banish the semi-final jinx and one of them will successfully do so as there can only be one winner. The question is will Croatia go one step better than their 1998 team, with whom they are often compared with or will it be young boys, who Gareth Southgate trusted to wear Three Lions on the chest?