Two nations are giddy about the prospect of reaching an unlikely World Cup final, but the calmest Englishmen and Croatians you’ll find are the groups of 23 ready to battle on the pitch at Luzhniki Stadium.
Neither team will go down as the most talented to have ever played for their countries. However, they are tantalisingly close to shaking off spectres of the past – for England, 1966 is still a blessing and a curse while the current Croats are constantly badgered about their third-placed heroes in 1998.
We’ve picked out the key storylines among many ahead of a momentous evening.
RESPECT FOR AN ARTIST
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, now in their 30s, will soon pass the generational baton down to Kylian Mbappe and friends. But it is refreshing that, at 32, long queues are now forming outside the Luka Modric appreciation society – with the two usual suspects long gone from Russia.
Slight and camera-shy, he’s unlikely to ever adorn the front page of GQ. The Real Madrid midfielder, often spoke of as warm and kind by those who meet him, places nothing above his craft or family life.
He may very well have to smile for a Ballon d’Or photo shoot come December, however, as should he lead tiny Croatia to the World Cup there is only one poster boy that comes to mind.
The naked statistics – two goals and an assist from open play – do him little justice. Though not the quickest, the Vatreni captain is a wonderful dribbler and has no peers when threading a ball in full flight.
He was subdued for the first half-hour in the quarter-final victory against Russia. But expect him to play higher up the pitch from the start against England, where he can pull at the seams of an as-yet relatively untested English back-line.
Luka Modric is Croatia's oldest field player, he's asked to run the entire midfield and 110 minutes in he looks fresher than anyone else out there. He's superhuman.— Ryan Rosenblatt (@RyanRosenblatt) July 7, 2018
Team-mate Dejan Lovren claimed earlier this week that Modric does ‘not get the attention he deserves’ because he hails from a country populated by just 4 million people. The world’s eyes will be on him on Wednesday.
It is threatening to bring the whole country to its knees. Endless debate in households, venomous arguments on social media, the fate of an entire nation rests on one decision: whether Raheem Sterling should be dropped.
The Brexit chaos is taking a backseat until at least Saturday, perhaps even Sunday, yet the feel-good factor swishing around England vanishes in a puff of smoke whenever Sterling lovers and haters cross swords.
To the naysayers he is all pace but no poise, squandering chance after chance while Marcus Rashford watches patiently from the bench. The other side just as strenuously argues that his darting runs put the fear of life into the opposition and to sideline him would be playing into Croatia’s hands.
As always, the middle ground is where the sense lies. With respect to Rashford, Sterling is far more polished in his attacking play thanks to two years’ worth of work under Pep Guardiola.
To throw more fuel to the bonfire by using the controversial statistic expected goals (xG), the Manchester City man also outdid his estimated 15.5 non-penalty goals last season by scoring 17.
However, you can boil football down into numbers only so much. Sterling must withstand the heat of the battle if he wants to score in the most important game of his life.
On average, players score goals about in line with their Expected Goals (xG) numbers. They can score more or less over short periods of time, but in most cases they "revert to the mean."— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) July 8, 2018
Example: Raheem Sterling scored 17 non-penalty goals last ssn, xG expected about 15.5. pic.twitter.com/ekyBRrK7OS
CROATIA TO GO EXTRA MILE
Three Lions supporters will have cheered with every wince and groan during extra-time in the game between Croatia and Russia, safe in the knowledge that their boys were putting their feet up following a sleepy win over Sweden.
Right-back Sime Vrsaljko succumbed to a knee injury and has been ruled out of the clash but goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and striker Mario Mandzukic were among the other walking wounded at the end.
A four-day turnaround will do nothing to help weary legs, especially as this Croatia team is not brimming with youth, but be careful when considering this as a huge disadvantage.
In 1990, England suffered through two extra-time nail-biters before playing West Germany in the semis and produced their finest performance of the tournament only for penalties to deny them.
Surely there’s nothing like the prospect of a World Cup final to renew body and soul. If England need a goal late on, though, the pace of Marcus Rashford and a fit-again Jamie Vardy off the bench will cause ructions among the Croatian backline.
France and Belgium are set to clash in the semi-finals of the World Cup on Tuesday at the Saint Petersburg Stadium.
And while the tournament has offered surprises every now and then since its start, and football pundits have failed more than often to get their predictions right, current Nice manager Patrick Vieira thinks he knows which of the two teams will emerge victorious.
Find out who he thinks will come out on top, below!
Croatia will lock horns with England in the semi-final of the World Cup on Wednesday at the Luzhniki Stadium.
The winner of the encounter will then head to face either Belgium or France in the final of the tournament.
And as we await what promises to be an electric battle, here’s a look at head-to-head stats for Zlatko Dalic and Gareth Southgate‘s teams.