ENGLAND players take part in a training session at the Spartak Zelenogorsk ground near St Petersburg on Tuesday.—Reuters
ENGLAND players take part in a training session at the Spartak Zelenogorsk ground near St Petersburg on Tuesday.—Reuters

ST PETERSBURG: It’s taken them both a long time to get back here. 28 years for England, 20 for Croatia. It’s something that will make them both want to make most of the opportunity they have. It’s a grand one, reaching the World Cup final has eluded some of their best players in recent history, the poster-boys for those who will take to the pitch of Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in an epic second semi-final showdown on Wednesday.

England have for long desired to be at this stage. For long their national team hasn’t justified their claim that they have the best league in the world. They came to Russia as an underrated group of players, a young team with none of the hyped-up circus that has surrounded their teams of the past. They’ve shown courage, resilience and style are hoping to go one better than their side of 1990 which fell at this stage of the World Cup to West Germany on penalties. In a more encouraging sign, this time around, they’ve also won their first penalty shootout at world football’s showpiece tournament.

Croatia have won two penalty shootouts on their way to the semis this year — their first since they lost to eventual winners France back in 1998, which was their maiden participation in the World Cup after their independence. The current generation has perpetually been compared to that class of 20 years ago and here is their chance to go one better.

“We’re ready and looking forward to it,” Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic told a news conference on Monday. “It is after all the semi-final of the World Cup. You’ll see it on the field.”

It promises to be an epic battle when Croatian experience takes on English youth. In Mandzukic, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic, Croatia have players who are at some of Europe’s top clubs. Perisic aside, all have won club football’s biggest prize — the UEFA Champions League.

“It could be said that we have the more experience,” said Mandzukic at the Luzhniki Training Centre, where Croatia shifted their base from St Petersburg following their quarter-final shootout triumph against hosts Russia.

In contrast, there is only one Champions League winner in the England squad, Chelsea’s Gary Cahill who is their second-choice central defender. Gareth Southgate, though, has made this young squad believe in their collective strength.

CROATIA’S players stretch during a practice session.—AP
CROATIA’S players stretch during a practice session.—AP

“We had to believe and we know how talented we are as a squad,” Dele Alli said on Monday at England’s training base in Repino, outside St Petersburg. “We know we have some unbelievable players and a great manager and everyone is clear on what we do. When you have such a solid foundation, you have the basics and clear understanding of what we want to do and achieve, it’s not a surprise that it’s going well for us.”

Key to England’s run to the last-four stage has been their set-piece efficiency. Eight of their 11 goals have come from free-kicks, corners or penalties. Wing-backs Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier have been key to providing the corners.

“Of course they have been a massive thing for us and other teams through the whole of the World Cup,” Young said on Monday. “We work on them in attack and defence and they are vitally important for us. They have worked in our favour and we hope to continue doing that.”

England started off with a hard-fought victory against Tunisia, and if that fuelled belief, they thrashed Panama 6-1 in their next match. Finishing behind Belgium in their group, they beat Colombia on penalties before cruising past Sweden. Croatia are a different breed though and England will need Jordan Henderson to put on a shift in midfield to stop the threat posed by their star duo of Modric and Rakitic.

“They’re fantastic players … they’re a fantastic team,” Henderson said the pre-match press conference on Tuesday. “I’ve played against Modric and he’s world class … one of the best there is. We’ll try to keep him quiet but Croatia are a team that also has threats from different areas.”

Win and they will be one step closer to achieving the feats of their 1966 team — the only one from England that has tasted glory at world football’s showpiece tournament. “We’re concentrating on what we need to do … what we want to create,” said Henderson when asked about the team of 1966. “We need to keep going game by game. It’s a massive game and we’re focusing on what we need to do. Not many of us remember that far back.”

Riding on inspiration from Modric, Croatia looked to be the World Cup’s best side during the group stages, their 3-0 thumping of Argentina being the highlight of that run. They’ve not been as impressive since with battling shootout wins against Denmark and Russia. Yet, they have the players who have been there and done that and know when to turn up.

Almost 11 years ago, Croatia beat England in a Euro 2008 qualifier, one that saw England miss out on the continental tournament. It also forced England to rethink and make new strategies. They have enjoyed success since with their Under-17 and Under-19 teams winning their age-group World Cups.

“I’ve been involved in all of those plans,” said Southgate during the pre-match press conference on Tuesday. “We made lots of changes to help us be successful and seeing the younger teams win has been hugely rewarding.”

Going past Croatia and beyond, though, would be the greatest reward.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2018