Russia v Croatia player battles as Real Madrid magician Luka Modric brings an all-round game to the World Cup

Matt Jones 6/07/2018
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Luka Modric celebrates his wonder strike.

Russia will hope to defy the doubters once again as they go in search of just a second-ever World Cup semi-final spot and first since 1966 when they were known as the Soviet Union.

Standing in their path are a Croatia side built to create, but who struggled against Denmark in the last 16, having earlier breezed to top spot in Group D with three wins from three, ahead of Argentina.

Zlatko Dalic’s side are chasing their own history, looking to emulate the side of 20 years ago, who finished third place in France.

Ahead of the game, we look at the key players for each side.

IGOR AKINFEEV V DANIJEL SUBASIC

06 07 Russia v Croatia Key Battles 1

Igor Akinfeev, much like Russia, came into the tournament under a cloud, fully expected to join South Africa as the only World Cup hosts to not make it beyond the group phase.

But the host nation have already proved to be heroes, far exceeding expectations. And CSKA Moscow stopper Akinfeev has epitomised their grit and resolve, while exorcising some World Cup demons in the process.

Life was anything but a beach for the 32-year-old in Brazil four years ago. Akinfeev’s horrendous gaffe in their opening group game against South Korea – the nation’s maiden finals appearance in 12 years – saw him allow Lee Keun-ho’s speculative effort to squirm through his grasp and over the line, with team-mate Alexander Kerzhakov sparing his blushes when he equalised late on to salvage a 1-1 draw.

He’s attracted criticism throughout his career for many a high profile blunder, but Akinfeev has been awesome during Russia’s run to the quarter-finals – his 14 saves place him joint-third, only behind Mexico guardian Guillermo Ochoa and Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel. His heroics in the dramatic last 16 penalty shootout victory over Spain will also live long in the memory.

Speaking of penalties, and Croatia custodian Danijel Subasic will be full of confidence having played a huge hand in his nation’s route to the last eight.

He saved penalties from Christian Eriksen, Lasse Schone and Nicolai Jorgensen as Croatia crept past the dangerous Danes in the round of 16, emerging as the hero as Croatia look to emulate the third-place finish of the star-studded side at France ’98.

The Monaco stopper has conceded only one goal in three games so far, and even though it was a howler to gift Denmark the lead last time out, he has otherwise been imperious and will be eying a third clean sheet in Sochi.

ALEKSANDR GOLOVIN V LUKA MODRIC

06 07 Russia v Croatia Key Battles 2

Luka Modric is a world-class talent whose impish skills as a midfield technician are a joy to behold, of that there is no doubt. Despite his incredible cunning and craft, however, it is only with Croatia that his undeniable ability is truly recognised and respected.

At club level he, understandably perhaps, operates from the considerable shadow cast by Cristiano Ronaldo. Isco, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema largely occupy any spare column inches.

But following a season in which Modric’s Madrid form and future has come under scrutiny like none of his previous five, the 32-year-old has served up a reminder of his rarefied and resplendent talent in Russia.

His 2.5 average key passes per game is 13th at the tournament, but none of the top 12 have played more minutes (365) than him. He averages 60 passes per game (13.5 more than any teammate) and has scored two goals.

Most impressive though is how Modric has contributed in other areas. The diminutive 5ft 8in midfield dynamo is winning on average two aerial duels per game, while the mental fortitude displayed in scoring in the shootout over Denmark, having earlier missed one in extra-time to win the game outright, was beyond impressive.

Russia’s route to the last eight has been built on defensive solidity and a stoic team spirit, but CSKA Moscow’s Aleksandr Golovin has added a sprinkling of stardust to the combative and courageous approach from Stanislav Cherchesov’s side.

What’s been even more impressive than the two assists and the stylish Saudi Arabia goal – up there with the best of the tournament – is how he’s taken on the creative burden expected to be shouldered by Alan Dzagoev.

The  injury suffered by Golovin’s clubmate, who is incidentally fit again for the Croatia match, was supposed to hasten Russia’s exit. Instead, at 1-0 up against the Green Falcons, Denis Cheryshev entered the fray and Russia took off, and still haven’t come down.

They may well be grounded by Croatia but they’ve captured the hearts of their nation, and 22-year-old Golovin has a bright future ahead of him.

ARTEM DZYUBA V MARIO MANDZUKIC

06 07 Russia v Croatia Key Battles 3

Harry Kane, check. Cristiano Ronaldo, check. Romelu Lukaku, check. Artem Dzyuba…who?! He’s hardly a household name, yet the Zenit Saint Petersburg powerhouse is trailing just behind these three behemoths in the goalscoring stakes in Russia with three strikes.

That included an ice cold conversion of his penalty to draw the hosts level with 2010 champions Spain in a last 16 triumph that sent shockwaves around the rest of Russia.

Dzyuba isn’t even a household name in a Russian squad that has rebelled against the establishment at this World Cup. At 29, he’s played just 27 times for the national team, those caps earned sporadically since his debut seven years ago.

One appearance per year was registered until 2014 when he finally broke out. Yet even with the World Cup approaching he failed to feature once in 2017. He had been called up to the squads for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup but missed out, although he’s certainly made up for lost time here. His goalscoring record is hugely impressive throughout all national team levels and 14 from 27 senior caps is eye-catching to say the least.

Like Dzyuba, Mandzukic is a striker who won’t necessarily get the credit he deserves despite being an adroit goal-getter. A record of 31 strikes in 86 caps isn’t prolific, but then the Juventus forward’s game is so much more.

Holding the ball up, tirelessly stretching defences into submission and making intelligent runs either onto throughballs or to open up space for Croatia’s craftsmen are all caveats to Mandzukic’s game.

He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time too (his solitary goal in the last 16 against Denmark is evidence of that) and he always shows up for the big games – so expect him to make a significant impact in Sochi.

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Harry Maguire and Andreas Granqvist in clash of titans and other key Sweden v England match-ups

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It’s the 1990s all over again. England are one game away from reaching their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years while Sweden are on course to emulate their third-place finish in 1994.

The Swedes’ run to the last eight has been built on a voracious work ethic coupled with a stifling defence. The Three Lions’ back-line is also heavily fortified and up front they have the trusty, and perhaps soon-to-be golden, boot of Harry Kane.

Below we pick out the three most tantalising match-ups ahead of the quarter-final in Samara.

MARCUS BERG v HARRY KANE

06 07 Sweden v England Key Battles 1

This is hardly a favourable comparison for Al Ain striker Marcus Berg considering that he’s drawn a blank and Kane has notched up a tournament-leading six goals.

Berg’s right boot may as well dispense helium given that he’s ballooned many of his shots high and wide – but if accuracy hadn’t deserted him he’d surely be off the mark by now. He also forced Yann Sommer into a spectacular save in the quarter-final versus Switzerland.

Indeed, the 31-year-old has been eluding enough defenders by popping up in dangerous positions and, together with 6ft 2in Ola Toivonen, will present England’s back three with their most physical challenge yet.

In contrast Kane has been at his clinical best – and he’s had to be due to a concerning lack of service from open play. While Dele Alli,  Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling have shown spurts of inspiration, their link-up play has rarely included the Tottenham striker. He has mustered nine shots in total and three of those were from the spot.

This can also be digested in a more positive light. Tunisia, Panama and Colombia all resorted to rough stuff in the box in order to deal with the Golden Boot hunter’s movement and power – leading to penalties or at the very least good shouts.

Sweden are likely to be every bit as physical as Colombia – though hopefully less cynical – and Kane has not shirked from the challenge. Even when the supply lines were cut off in Moscow on Tuesday night, he came foraging for the ball and won an incredible 11 aerial duels while being fouled nine times.

EMIL FORSBERG v RAHEEM STERLING

06 07 Sweden v England Key Battles 2(1)

No player polarises opinion more in England than Sterling. Whether it is his superb goal-scoring season for Manchester City, an eye-brow raising tattoo or sinister undertones from the tabloids when criticising his perceived lifestyle, there is never a shortage of topics up for discussion.

Despite that joyous end to a nerve-shredding night, one notorious British media outlet stuck the boot in on Sterling’s performance almost as soon as he was substituted in Moscow. It was a horrendous misjudgment of the national mood and hastily rewritten.

There was, however, a kernel of truth to be found when the country stopped bouncing. Sterling, still only 23, has won 41 caps for England and has just two strikes to show for it, the last of which came in October 2015. How such a talented forward – who managed 23 goals for City last season – can have such a dire record is unfathomable.

But he remains so important for the Three Lions. No one can match him for pace and, marry that with his intelligent, darting runs, he visibly keeps defenders in check when off the ball. He just needs to sharpen his accuracy when in possession and clearly that’s no simple task.

Though Sterling remains goalless he had been a more impactful presence then Sweden’s chief source of inspiration, Emil Forsberg, up until the round of 16. The RB Leipzig playmaker had been a disappointment in a team that has done nothing but exceed expectations so far.

According to whoscored.com‘s statistics, Forsberg is not not even averaging one ‘key pass’ a game, which along with his dribbling is his strongest suit. Kieran Trippier, arguably the World Cup’s finest right-back, will be lurking down his flank in Samara to make sure the trend continues.

Some of his deficiencies can be put down to the Swedish gameplan. Head coach Janne Andersson is as pragmatic as they come and in his eyes his star man is valued just as highly for the sacrifices he has made to his natural game.

“Even if he doesn’t succeed in every dribble, in every part of his game he contributes in so many ways and he has those decisive moments,” said Andersson after Forsberg’s deflected winner against Switzerland.

ANDREAS GRANQVIST v HARRY MAGUIRE

06 07 Sweden v England Key Battles 3(1)

Some English fans may have faint memories of Andreas Granqvist’s miserable loan spell under Paul Jewell’s Wigan a decade ago. Ironically he has developed into one of the few modern-day footballers who could cope with the blood-and-thunder British football of the 70s and 80s – an old-fashioned defender who plays with as many frills as he asks from his barber.

The 33-year-old is a totemic leader, as was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but in so many different ways. Where Ibrahimovic led with his ego, Granqvist has as an even bigger heart. Nicknamed ‘the Christmas Tree’ in his homeland, the festive season will start early should Sweden keep a clean sheet for a third time in four games.

He and Manchester United centre-back Victor Lindelof do not have a thick layer of protective coating in Sweden’s dogmatic 4-4-2 set-up, yet the pair have been the picture of serenity – as far as blocks and headers can be made to seem, anyway – which should force England to play with more width. Oh ,and Granqvist wouldn’t be bad in a penalty shootout, too …

Leicester’s Harry Maguire is the only first-choice England outfield player who belongs to a Premier League club outside of last season’s top four but has performed like he is born for the big stage.

Wherever the ball was, his head followed against Colombia and it was to his great misfortune that Yerry Mina had the run on him for the equalising goal that eventually forced England into eradicating their penalty shootout curse at a World Cup.

Maguire has played half a game less than Granqvist but has won 11 more aerial duels and many of those have come in the opposition box. There is no team left that poses such a danger from set-pieces and Maguire is a key reason for that.

As England operate with a back three, Maguire has been allowed to show off his competency at bringing the ball out and helping the Three Lions transition into attack.

The 25-year-old may not receive quite as much space for marauding if the Swedish front two close down, but between him and John Stones, England are likely to keep the lion’s share of possession and help support lone pivot Jordan Henderson dissect the midfield.

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Paul Pogba's growing influence for France is key to unlocking stubborn Uruguay defence

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When every other mention of Paul Pogba isn’t attached to a quip over his latest haircut, a new social media post or yet another reminder of his price tag, he must be doing something right.

On or off the pitch, the French midfielder is the kind of individual who automatically stands out and that’s not always to his benefit. Given his immense talent and natural ability, anything short of an excellent display from Pogba renders him an easy target for critics and many column inches have already been dedicated to the disparagement of some of his more disappointing performances.

Despite a subdued start during France’s World Cup opener, Pogba’s influence on France’s gameplay has grown and unmistakably came to the fore in a thrilling 4-3 win over Argentina.

However, his importance to Les Bleus was obvious even before that stellar display as France supporters pined for the often derided individual when a rather flat midfield could conjure little of note during a drab 0-0 draw in their final group game against Denmark – still the only goalless draw of this World Cup.

The lack of ingenuity in midfield was alarming and didn’t put Deschamps’ tactics in the best light, even if there was little to play for in that encounter. Pogba’s presence doesn’t seamlessly compensate for his side’s shortcomings in terms of their approach but certainly bridges the gap and makes for a more fluid process.

Even at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho’s approach leaves much to be desired and often sees Pogba bear the brunt of the blame. Not all of it is unwarranted.

When the Premier League giants struggle to release the handbrake, the Frenchman does have a tendency to take it upon himself to make something happen and while that is an admirable attitude, he often winds up dwelling on the ball or attempting to beat one defender too many.

Paul Pogba was excellent against Argentina.

Paul Pogba was excellent against Argentina.

With France though, he has far more flair and attacking verve around him to feed off. Les Bleus boast an embarrassment of riches in forward areas and although many of those exciting talents are bound by the restraints of Deschamps’ instruction, they are still there for Pogba to cleverly tap into.

His incredible vision and sublime execution came to the fore against Argentina as he played numerous balls into space for the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to devour. It’s that ability to unlock his side’s true attacking potential that will be absolutely key when they face Uruguay in the quarter-finals.

With Atletico Madrid duo Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez laying a solid foundation in central defence, the South Americans have been compact and disciplined as a unit, unsurprisingly boasting the best defensive record at the World Cup having conceded just once in the tournament so far.

Pogba will have to be patient and precise with his probing in his efforts to break their stubborn resistance. It will be a test of his mental resolve as much as his footballing capabilities and will demand a level of maturity that he has scarcely portrayed with United.

However, recent outings will inspire confidence among the French contingent in their midfield maestro. His masterclass against Argentina could be a sign of things to come and a testament to his temperament. Or was it only another glimpse of the player he may never fully grow into?

Questions are waiting to be answered at the Nizhny Novogorod Stadium.

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