Croatia are coming off of emotionally-charged penalty shoot-out versus Russia and England are coming off of a composed victory against Sweden. Both teams have shown consistency and quality on their road to the World Cup semi-final.
The Croatian team will have to overcome the distraction posed by the sacking of assistant coach Ognjen Vukojevic, who was relieved of his duties for posting a pro-Ukraine video on social media following the penalty shootout win over Russia. Centre-half Domagoj Vida, who scored what looked to be the winning goal in the 101st minute, was also given a formal warning by FIFA for participating in the video but the governing body did not impose a match sanction. The talking points around the match will certainly obscure the fact that Croatia have had the stamina to endure back to back 120 minute matches and two penalty shoot-outs. The worry for Croatia is that fatigue may start to set in. The matchup to look for is Dejan Lovren against Harry Kane. Lovren is a solid defender and his assignment in every match is to contain the oppositions top striker. Against Russia, Lovren was able to contain Fedor Smolov when he was introduced in the 67th minute and reduce him to a non-factor, however Harry Kane is a different level of challenge. Croatia's attack is built around Luka Modric and his phenomenal ability to play box-to-box. Croatia enjoyed 65% of the possession against Russia and much of that was due to Modric's ability to win the ball in deep-lying positions and start the counter attack. England's midfielders will focus their attention on attempting to contain Modric. For Croatia to find success, Ivan Rakitic needs to be a creative force in the middle and open up the field in order to spread England wide and create lanes for Mario Mandzukic to run into.
England demonstrated the potency of their aerial attack versus Sweden. Harry Maguire opened up the scoring by rising up to put away a header off of a corner kick and Dele Ali put away a cross that Jesse Lingard served up for him. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was again solid in making a few critical stops that kept Sweden at bay and prevented them from getting back into the match. England's unsung hero throughout the World Cup has been Jordan Henderson. He has been a steady calming force who controls the tempo of England's game. Look for Henderson to serve as a counter-balance to Luka Modric on the other side of the ball. Raheem Sterling had arguably his best game of the tournament against Sweden. He had two excellent chances to score, but even though he wasn't able to find the back of the net his play making ability made him a constant threat. Look for Sterling to open up scoring opportunities for Harry Kane.
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