Dele Alli has come a long way in a short time, and is now preparing for the biggest game of his career.
Alli, who scored the second goal in England’s 2-0 win quarter-final win over Sweden on Saturday, says he does not get nervous but agreed that Wednesday’s clash against Croatia is his grandest stage yet.
An apt time, then, to reflect on his road from the MK Dons youth system to the Luzhniki Stadium.
Asked to name his toughest experience in the lower leagues, the 22-year-old Tottenham midfielder barely missed a beat before answering “Bradford away”.
It was February 2015 and Alli scored in a 2-1 defeat at Valley Parade, but neither that, nor the appearance of England number one Jordan Pickford in goal for the Bantams, is lodged in his mind.
“It was a night game, the pitch was horrible,” he said. “It was a horrible game. They were very aggressive and it wasn’t a nice day. Every time I got the ball people would be kicking, swearing.
“There are a lot of different paths you can take to getting to the England senior team.”
Rewind six months from that match and Alli was announcing himself as one to watch with a confident performance in a shock League Cup win for MK Dons over Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United.
The League One side recorded a stunning 4-0 win but Alli was still a wide-eyed teenager, who sought out United striker Danny Welbeck for a souvenir shirt.
The suggestion was politely rebuffed – a fact the pair are now able to laugh about as England colleagues in Russia.
“Me and Danny Welbeck have a joke about it because I asked him for his shirt,” Alli laughed.
“We speak about it now. He wouldn’t give it to me. I think he wanted to keep that shirt but he was polite about it. He was really nice. I wasn’t going to give him mine – I just wanted his.”
Come Wednesday it could be Croatia star Modric that Alli will want to swap jerseys with.
The pair will both be key in the battle for midfield supremacy and have previous with each other – including Tottenham’s Champions League win over Real Madrid last November.
Alli had yet to play a competitive game for Spurs when he nutmegged Modric in a 2015 pre-season friendly – earning a cheerful rebuke from his more established opponent.
“I remember it… he said something,” Alli recalled with a smile.
“I always enjoy a good nutmeg. I didn’t shout ‘megs’. I have never done that, even in training. Some people when they nutmeg (someone), they call it, but it’s never been something I’ve done.”
Asked if a repeat performance was on the cards, he said: “Nutmeg him? Hopefully! But I’m not going to focus on that.”
Not all of Alli’s memorable moments are good ones, with the nadir being England’s Euro 2016 exit to Iceland.
Thinking back to a time when a World Cup final must have seemed an implausible prospect, Alli said: “Straight after that game you want the floor to eat you up.
“You want to hide and not come out of your room. You want to forget about it and lock yourself away. When Gareth came in it was the first time we relived it. You don’t want to watch it back but we know how important it was, going into the World Cup, that we had to go back through it to come out stronger.”
France and Belgium have charted similar paths to their World Cup semi-final clash on Tuesday. The two European neighbours rely on high-flying attacks led by some of the best players in the world.
While other stars have been hogging the limelight for France, Antoine Griezmann has gone slightly unnoticed, but he’s served as an excellent chief creator for his team – much like Eden Hazard has for Belgium, in more show-stopping, headline-grabbing ways.
The two men, along with their respective striker partners Olivier Giroud and Romelu Lukaku, hold the hopes of their nations at their feet as a place in the final is on the line, and they headline our key battles for the match at Saint Petersburg (22:00 UAE time).
Antoine Griezmann vs Eden Hazard
Griezmann hasn’t quite burst into life at the World Cup, but he’s been exactly what France have needed him to be. His interventions have rarely been spectacular – his three goals are two penalties and a goalkeeping error – but his vision, passing, pace and movement have been crucial to Les Bleus’ success.
His link-up play with Giroud and Kylian Mbappe has been a standout feature of his game, but it’s the understanding he has on the pitch with Paul Pogba that truly makes France tick. The partnerships with all three are why Griezmann is at the heart of France’s best play.
That’s exactly the sort of role Hazard has been craving on a stage like this.
This is arguably the biggest moment of his career, and Hazard’s been performing almost with an air of nonchalance – as if he realises that he’s simply delivering on a promise, finally fulfilling expectations for a Belgian public that has been waiting for both player and team to play like this for a long time.
Hazard’s form in Russia has vaulted him into the Ballon d’Or conversation. Another telling display in the semi-final – and then perhaps a final – would go a long way in boosting his case.
Olivier Giroud vs Romelu Lukaku
Giroud hasn’t scored a goal, hasn’t even had a shot on target for France this tournament, and yet he’s undroppable.
His role as a target man for France allows players like Mbappe and Griezmann to run off him and get into space. Mbappe, especially, has benefitted from the attention Giroud commands just through his presence, as it allows him to use his pace to its fullest effect.
France’s success at the tournament has kept the talk around Giroud’s own lack of production down to a relative minimum. But wouldn’t he love to bury it completely?
Lukaku can serve as a target man just as well as Giroud can, if not better. His play as a focal point for Belgium’s attack, coupled with his pace and link-up play, has unlocked the Red Devils’ counter-attacking ability, and in their stunning quarter-final win over Brazil he showcased his adaptability, playing in the unfamiliar position of right winger and doing so with aplomb.
He’s likely to be reverted to his usual position against France – not that it will reduce Belgium’s potential to be devastating. For a player in Lukaku’s form, with the Golden Boot a real possibility, history beckons.
Raphael Varane vs Vincent Kompany
Raphael Varane is still developing as a defender – unsurprising, given he’s only 25 – but there have been signs this summer that he is coming into his own at the heart of his national team’s defence.
He looks far more assured and commanding than his centre-back colleague, Samuel Umtiti – not to mention, a greater threat in the opposition box. Varane’s movement to get free for his goal in the quarter-final against Uruguay would have made a centre-forward proud.
The challenge now is to build on that performance against the toughest attack France have faced in this tournament.
Vincent Kompany, on the other end of his career compared to Varane, has made his latest recovery from injury at the perfect time for Belgium. He put in a warrior-like display against Brazil, and it was clear how much the moment meant to him. His career has been blighted by injuries – his 80 international caps are ten fewer than Hazard, five years his junior – and seeing Belgium underachieve before this tournament will have hurt him more than most.
But Belgium finally playing up to their potential gives Kompany a shot at the biggest glory of his career. He will be craving a win on Tuesday more than anyone else.
England crashed out of the European Championships two years ago with a shock loss to Iceland at the last-16 stage.
Much has changed since then with new manager Gareth Southgate leading a revamped and re-energised squad on an impressive run through this summer’s tournament in Russia.
England will now play Croatia on Wednesday for a chance to secure a place in the final for the first time since 1966.
Speaking at a press conference, midfielder Dier said: “After the Iceland game we knew that things needed to change. There have been a lot of changes since that moment.
“It was a moment where we were extremely disappointed and couldn’t let that happen again. We knew we could only make amends for that moment here at this World Cup. Nothing else would fix what happened.
“That is what we have been trying to do. We have learned from our mistakes.”
England reached the last four with victory over Sweden on Saturday. It is the furthest they have progressed in the tournament since 1990 but Dier insists nobody is congratulating themselves yet.
The 24-year-old said: “I don’t think we have succeeded yet. Success is hard to define but in my eyes, and everyone’s back at the hotel, this isn’t success yet. We’re hungry for more.
“Hopefully we can continue to show that on Wednesday. After the game against Sweden we switched our attention to Wednesday and we are focused on that game.
“We know there can be even better nights the longer we go in the tournament. We have loved every minute, every game, but we know there can be a lot more enjoyment if we continue on this path.”
Team-mate Ashley Young, who carried out media duties on Monday along with Dier, believes England have put themselves in an excellent position but insists nobody is getting carried away.
The left wing-back said: “I think we have got a great chance. We have put ourselves in a great position to go on and win it.
“I said before the start of the tournament we’re not going out there not to win the World Cup.
“But we haven’t won anything yet. There is no point in celebrating. Obviously it was nice to get the victory and the celebrations were muted just because we know there are still big games to come. We know there is a lot to play for.”
Young is preparing for a tough encounter against Croatia.
He said: “Croatia are a very good team. They are not in the semi-final for no reason. We have got to be prepared for them.
“Luka Modric is a fantastic player but they have players around the squad who are going to be difficult opponents.”