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10th Jul 2018

World Cup Comments: England and Croatia on divergent paths ahead of semi-final clash

England have gone from strength to strength since the group stages, Croatia meanwhile have gone in the opposite direction

Wayne Farry

June 21, 8.38pm: Luka Modric runs in exultant celebration past devastated Argentinian faces

The Real Madrid superstar has just scored Croatia’s second goal in a 3-0 against the traditional World Cup heavyweights.

That performance, one which left Croatia as one of only two sides with a clean sheet after two group games, stood out to those watching.

Everyone was aware of Argentina’s flaws, but this was a level of decimation usually only reserved for games between titans and minnows.

Croatia had taken Jorge Sampaoli’s side apart, pouncing ruthlessly on every mistake with the efficiency of a team high on life, a team coming into the form of their lives at just the right time.

Cut forward to three days later and Croatia had finished top of their group, while England – the Croats opponents in Wednesday’s semi-final – finished as runners-up to Belgium.

Modric and co. had impressed much less in their final group game against Iceland than they had against Argentina, but here they were in the knockout stages with the wind at their backs and a 100% record.

It is this, the confidence and fluidity with which Croatia played their opening three games, which makes what has followed all the more surprising.

In their round of 16 tie they faced Denmark, a disciplined side but one which is limited bar the exceptionally talented Christian Eriksen.

Croatia were not overwhelming favourite ahead of the match, but they were expected to go through. Most importantly they were expected to play with style.

They did the former, but not the latter. They made it through the tie via a penalty shootout, but played a game of such tedium that it was scarcely recognisable from the incisive intensity of their destruction of Argentina.

Still, this was only one game. Except it wasn’t. The same pattern was played out against Russia in the quarter-finals.

If Denmark are merely disciplined aside from Eriksen, Russia are merely disciplined, but yet again Croatia trudged through the match.

Yes, there were moments of stunning quality – particularly from the world class Luka Modric – but for the most part this was, yet again, an exceptional team playing within itself.

Some may say that they were tired, having fought for 120 minutes against the Danes, but shoot a look towards England against Sweden and this claim simply falls flat.

Southgate’s side also played 120 minutes in their round of 16, in their penalty shoutout victory against Colombia.

But while Croatia had struggled against Denmark, England had impressed against a better, stronger side, only looking inferior for a period early in extra-time as the shell shock of Colombia’s equaliser sunk in and wore off.

While Croatia failed to show up in their quarter-final against Russia, Southgate’s side completed what was arguably the most comfortable victory of the knockout stages.

They too had played 120 minutes but after a slow early period played with the sort of joie de vivre that we have come to expect from this infectious young side.

While Croatia struggled to yet another shootout win, England took apart the Swedes like Clark Kent upon realising that he’s not been given all the necessary screws to put together his MALM.

All of this is fact, but why has it happened?

Why have these two teams – both playing with utterly different levels of expectation – taken such different trajectories in the knockout stages?

From a team perspective, Croatia remain much the same as they have been throughout the tournament.

They are a cohesive unit of top class players, many of whom are playing at a higher level domestically than England’s squad, but having started confidently they have begun to wilt as the competition has heated up.

They are not helped by a fractious situation back home, where both Dejan Lovren and Luka Modric are at the centre of a criminal proceedings over money they recouped from their own transfers out of Dinamo Zagreb.

That situation not only sees Modric facing the prospect of jail time, but has also turned much of the country’s population against them. This is a side which one would expect to be adored for having reached the semi-final of a World Cup for the first time in 20 years.

Instead, they are strongly disliked by many.

England, on the other hand, have notably grown – at every level – throughout this competition, something which has turned this once likable team into one that is utterly, completely adored and on the verge of becoming deified.

Having started nervously in the group stage, they have markedly improved with every passing game, looking more comfortable both with themselves and the stage on which they’ve found themselves.

Both the manager and players deserve credit for this.

By shedding the egos which have stifled the country’s national team for years, this side has done what none has been able to do in almost three decades: allowed its stars to emulate the form they’ve shown at club level.

The fact that this team contains no Champions League winners and very few stratospheric superstars – no Beckhams, Lampards or Gerrards – makes this shedding of egos undoubtedly easier, but it a testament to the group that they are a collective first and individuals second.

Leicester City’s Harry Maguire and Everton’s Jordan Pickford have been just as influential as Harry Kane, probably the one truly world class player in the squad; but in truth the entire squad has delivered, stepping up to do what they have to do, whether they have started on the pitch or on the bench.

Add to this the aforementioned goodwill and you have an England side on the crest of a wave not seen in this country in 22 years.

By no means does this suggest that Croatia will be walkovers, or that England will waltz into the final without breaking a sweat. But it does represent something rarely seen among England teams: an increase in support and belief throughout a tournament, rather than a dampening of expectations and a souring of relations.

Despite the respective paths their tournaments have taken, Croatia could well come out in Moscow on Wednesday night playing as they did against Argentina.

But even if they do, this England side – which has met and exceeded expectations all summer long – will be confident of beating them.