World Cup: Does Croatia Have Enough Left in the Tank To Upset England?
- England is a decent favorite to advance to the World Cup Semifinal over Croatia.
- In a vacuum, the odds would be much tighter for this match, but Croatia are dealing with several injury concerns after playing back-to-back 120-minute matches.
- One concern for England will be their lack of goals from open play, but they will have a distinct advantage over Croatia on set pieces.
England vs. Croatia, 2 p.m. ET, Fox
- England +131
- Croatia +256
- Draw +207
It’s fair to say that both England and Croatia have exceeded expectations to reach this stage, but both will be desperate to go that one step further. The former will perhaps feel they hold an advantage after a relatively comfortable victory over Sweden on Saturday, while Croatia had to go the distance against hosts Russia.
That was the second match running in which Zlatko Dalic’s side required a penalty shootout to progress, and they have looked tired after a mightily impressive performance in the group stage. That additional fatigue has certainly had a bearing on the outright odds. And while the psychological lift of two spot-kick victories is a consideration, whether Croatian legs can keep up with Croatian minds is another matter.
England, meanwhile, seemed buoyed by an achievement that seemed impossible in the minds of the fans against Colombia — England don’t win shootouts after all — and after a nervy start to their quarterfinal, they did deserve their two-goal victory. — Martin Laurence
England and Croatia are probably the weakest two teams left, but they each have specific tactical strengths that make them hard to beat and could lead them to the title.
England’s system is largely a defensive one. Playing three central defenders (even if one of them is natural fullback Kyle Walker), along with a midfield that’s light on passing in Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard means that the team has trouble creating chances from open play. They’ve managed to avoid that problem so far by depending on a series of extremely well-organized set-piece routines.
England prioritizes a strong defensive counterpress, harrying teams immediately after turning the ball over, in order to make sure they can’t counterattack. That approach involves very disciplined positioning, and while both Alli and Lingard will make forays forward into the box, especially when striker Harry Kane drops deeper to collect the ball, it’s really only Raheem Sterling who has true freedom of movement. It’s Sterling’s ability to make trouble, to make runs both from in to out and out to in that can bother a defense, but control him (or have him miss a golden opportunity as he did against Sweden), and England’s attack can be corralled.
Croatia on the other hand have a whole bunch of dynamic midfielders. From Luka Modric, to Ivan Rakitic to Marcelo Brozovic to Mateo Kovacic, Croatia has ball-playing midfielders coming out of their nose. They also have a nasty habit of wasting that creativity by playing the ball wide, and leaving it up to wingers Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic. Denmark and Russia were both able to slow Croatia down by encouraging them to move the ball out wide and then launch crosses toward Mario Mandzukic’s head. It’s a strategy that would be fine, if uninspiring, for a team that didn’t have the midfield that Croatia does. It will be a challenge to beat England’s three center back defensive alignment by crossing the ball endlessly. — Michael Goodman
Numbers to Watch
Croatian Crosses: If Croatia are crossing the ball a lot, that’s a good outcome for England. Their defensive plan will be to let Croatia funnel the ball wide and cross it to the middle where England’s defenders will be waiting.
Harry Kane Shots: Despite his six goals, Kane hasn’t been a major force for England from open play. Half of those goals have come from penalties and two more have come from set pieces. Only one goal, England’s sixth against lowly Panama, came from open play. If Kane is getting on the ball in shooting location against Croatia, watch out. — Michael Goodman
Breaking Down the Odds
England and Croatia were both fortunate to be on the “easier” side of the knockout bracket. They entered the tournament as darkhorses/longshots, but once the Round of 16 rolled around, they were legitimate contenders.
Croatia began the tournament at +3500 odds while England were +1650. Once Spain had been eliminated from their side of the bracket, England were the clear favorites to reach the final, but Croatia also felt pretty good about their chances.
Injuries: Croatia is dealing with a number of injuries after winning their second straight match in a penalty shootout. Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic pulled his hamstring late in the quarterfinal vs. Russia and stayed in to earn his second straight PK victory. He’ll likely start against England, but hamstring injuries don’t magically go away, so that will surely be one to keep an eye on. On the right side of defense, Šime Vrsaljko (knee) is doubtful and will be likely be replaced by Vedran Corluka in the starting lineup. Up front, Mandzukic is expected to start, but he went down with injury a number of times against Russia, so his fitness should be monitored.
For England, midfielder Jordan Henderson came off late in the quarterfinal against Sweden with a hamstring issue and is questionable for Wednesday’s match against Croatia. Forward Jamie Vardy (groin) is doubtful but he hasn’t made much of an impact so far this tourney. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is also dealing with a bruised thumb but will surely start the semifinal.
Suspensions: Fortunately neither team has any players suspended for the semifinal, and the only way to be suspended for the final is to earn a red card this game. There has been a strange development for Croatia, however, with assistant coach Ognjen Vukojevic being fired due to posting a “Glory to Ukraine” video after the match with Russia. It’s difficult to gauge whether this will affect the team or not, but it’s not the best distraction to have nonetheless. — Dan McGuire
There’s only one likely goalscorer according to the odds, with Kane currently priced around half that of any Croatia player ahead of Wednesday’s clash in Moscow. That’s perhaps a little rash considering Kane’s limited threat from open play thus far. But if England can give their captain the service he requires, there are few better finishers in the game, and arguably none of his caliber left in the tournament.
Kane’s return of six goals would have been enough to at least equal the tally of the Golden Boot winner at nine of the last 10 World Cups, and including his converted spot kick in the shootout with Colombia. No keeper has yet made a save against the Tottenham striker this summer.
If you’re after greater odds, when England have been threatened thus far it has generally, albeit sporadically, been down their left flank and in behind Harry Maguire. Rebic, meanwhile, has perhaps been Croatia’s liveliest attacking threat and looks a long price to add to his goal against Argentina. — Martin Laurence
So far in the 2018 World Cup, everything has gone England’s way. They started out with a very weak draw, then played Colombia (who were missing their star player James Rodriguez), and then beat a toothless Swedish side in the quarterfinals. England have been dealt another break in the semis as they are set to battle an exhausted Croatia side. The Vatreni have played back-to-back 120-minute games, and by the end of the quarterfinals, the players were showing obvious signs of fatigue. Vrsaljko left the game with a knee injury, and Mandzukic could barely move by the match’s end.
How Croatia’s players recover will obviously be paramount to their success. If Dalic decides to rotate his squad, he can insert Brozovic or Kovacic into the midfield while Corluka could slot in for Vrsaljko, with Domagoj Vida moving out wide.
Meanwhile, despite Kane’s goal-scoring success, you could argue that England’s most important player thus far is another Harry — Maguire. The hulking centerback has been the key cog on most set pieces. Almost all of England’s set-play designs are built for Maguire to score or push the ball into the mixer with a header at the back post. Fortunately for Maguire and England, the service from Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier has been terrific throughout the tournament on direct kicks. — Sean Newsham
Dan M: Draw (+215)
Martin: Both teams to score (+112)
Michael Goodman: England to Advance (-165)
Sean Newsham: England to Advance (-165)