If anyone had suggested four weeks ago that Sunday’s showdown would be between France and Croatia they would have likely been declared mad. But after what has been a fantastic tournament in Russia so far, those are the two sides that will do battle at the Luzhniki Stadium. That is all thanks to Croatia’s epic and tense 2-1 victory over England on Wednesday. Here is what we learned from that night of drama in Moscow.
CROATIA HAVE HEART AND SOUL
They came into the clash on the back of two penalty shootout victories. Not only does that mean back-to-back 120-minute matches, but also the mental fatigue that comes with extra-time and penalties. Even after 90 minutes when it was clear some of the legs had gone they kept at it, searching for the winner. That was on top of the fact that when asked several questions by England, after their energetic first 30 minutes, they answered them with class, flair and fight. Following their underwhelming wins over Spain and Russia many questioned whether the 3-0 victory over Argentina in the group stage was the exception or the rule. In Moscow the victory over Argentina was shown to be far from an anomaly, rather a perfect example of what Croatia can do. They dominated the last three halves against England, were the better side, and that they proved that on a set of very tiredlegs means France will not be taking them lightly on Sunday.
MODRIC IS WHAT ENGLAND LACKED
After this World Cup there has to be a strong argument now for Luka Modric breaking the “oh so tedious” cycle of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Ballon d’Or. He has been brilliant in Russia and against England he was once again at the height of his under appreciated powers. But it was also clear that he was exactly the type of player that England lack and have lacked for years. There is nothing fancy about his game; he goes in search of the ball, gets the ball, keeps his head up and either plays an incisive pass or glides past players. He is always orchestrating, always in control and asking questions of the opposition, and in doing so gives Croatia a measure of control over the game. That is exactly what England did not have. After a good opening half hour they were not able to get a foot on the ball and control the rhythm and tempo in the way Croatia were thanks to Modric. Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, by contrast, like to be on the ends of chances rather than create them. Until they find a Modric, England will always likely come unstuck before lifting any silverware.
SOMETIMES IT IS NOT BAD TO CHANGE BOSS
It was not just Saudi Arabia who decided that a change of coach just months out from a World Cup was not as crazy an idea as some assume. While the Green Falcons let Bert van Marwijk go in September before sacking his replacement Egardo Bauza, Croatia decided to give Ante Cacic the big push last October just before their crucial qualifier against Ukraine. At the time they were second in the group but needed a result against their fellow eastern Europeans to guarantee a playoff spot. While some would argue that was not the best time to change the man in the dugout, the Croatian FA disagreed. In came Zlatko Dalic and the rest, as they say, is history.
ENGLAND NOT AS GOOD AS THEY THOUGHT
Context is everything and considering they were given no hope at the start of the tournament, for England to get to the last-four was a huge achievement. But, that aside, it was clear that they still have a lot of work to do if they are to be considered anything close to world-beaters. Going into the match they had only managed to beat Tunisia, Panama and Sweden in 90 minutes. In effect they lost to the first good side they came up against. Harry Kane, the likely Golden Boot winner, was anonymous for most of the match, simply because he had no quality midfielders to get the ball to him. That was not just the case against Croatia, but throughout the tournament — he only had five shots on target in the previous five matches. For all the talk of a new era under Gareth Southgate England were ultimatly undone by a familiar failing, a lack of creativity. In Russia they were reliant on set-pieces and, for all the positives to take, they still have many areas to improve before anyone can truly believe that “football’s coming home.”