England are eager to reach their first World Cup final since 1966, but first they will have to find a way past a tough opponent in Croatia in the semi-final at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday.
Gareth Southgate‘s young bunch of stars have managed to give their fans something to cheer in Russia as they get ready to play in the last-four of a major tournament for the first time since Euro ’96.
England secured a win over over Colombia on penalties in the last-16, and ever since then expectations have risen for the Three Lions.
But the question is, can Southgate’s team do what Sir Alf Ramsey’s side did in 1966 and lift the trophy?
“We were not certain what this team might be capable of,” Southgate told ITV.
England had won just one knockout game at a major tournament in 16 years before they headed to Russia, a 1-0 victory over Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
“We believed in its potential, and I think the games that we’ve prepared for, we had belief we would win, but there is still pressure in all of those matches, so I’m really pleased with how the team have emerged and developed,” he added.
— England (@England) July 10, 2018
Meanwhile, Southgate has been the man who has kept the team and fans from getting too carried away.
And while that job has been taken care of by him, the Three Lions have yet to come face-to-face with the big guns in the tournament so far.
A 2-1 win over Tunisia in their tournament opener, followed by a 6-1 thrashing of Panama, a close win on penalties over Los Cafeteros and an easy victory over Sweden in the quarter-finals; England’s road has had just one loss, that too in a group-winner deciding clash against Belgium.
Croatia won’t be easy meat though and will demand more from England’s players, more so because Zlatko Dalic’s side have one of the best, if not the best midfield pair, in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
Real Madrid playmaker Modric has been exquisite throughout and has led his team from the front.
He also emerged as the man of the match in the win over Russia in Sochi at the weekend, scoring in the shootout to help Croatia reach the semi-finals for the first time since the 1998 World Cup in France.
“There is still a lot to play. England is also one of the favourites to win the World Cup and you need to respect that. But we have nothing to lose, we will enjoy this game, and hopefully we can write history,” said defender Dejan Lovren, of Premier League side Liverpool.
Since 1998, when they played in the World Cup for the first time, Croatia have had their own share of disappointments at major tournaments and there seems to be less pressure on them this year.
“The biggest pressure came against Denmark in the round of 16 (which also went to extra-time and a penalty shootout). We feel much easier at this point,” said striker Mario Mandzukic.
Croatia also have their own set of injury problems ahead of the key encounter.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic stayed on against Russia despite hurting his hamstring, while right-back Sime Vrsaljko is a doubt.
But Southgate disagrees with the notion that England will be comparatively fresher.
“Any team in a World Cup semi-final is going to find the energy and going to find the motivation. So we won’t win the game just because Croatia had half an hour more football than us three days ago. We’ve got to win because we play better,” he said.
FIFA say they are “looking into” a second video of Croatia defender Domagoj Vida saying “glory to Ukraine”, having previously cleared him for his appearance in a similar video after Croatia’s win over World Cup hosts Russia in the quarter-finals.
In this newly-emerged video, Vida appears alongside former striker and Croatia coach Ivica Olic, with the defender saying “Glory to Ukraine, Belgrade is burning.”
Vida had been let off for the first video, though Croatia coach Ognjen Vukojevic, who posted it online, was sent home. The defender was nonetheless criticised, as the phrase he used in the video has previously been used by anti-Russia politicians in Ukraine.
FIFA outlaws political statements, with Switzerland’s Xherdan Shakiri, Granit Xhaka, and Stephan Lichtsteiner having been fined for politically charged celebrations in their win over Serbia.
Croatia play England in the second World Cup semi-final on Wednesday.
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