Croatia-England Preview: It's Coming Home! Or It's Coming Dom! Or to the Final, At Least.

So, that's more an attempt at cleverness that a prediction ("dom" is "home" in Serbo-Croatian), because this Croatia team is running on fumes, and it's not clear what they've really got left in the tank or how dodgy their injuries really are. The excellent right back Vrsaljko likely out, 33-year old keeper Subasic still struggling for fitness after almost being pulled twice in extra time, Mandzukic moaning and groaning and Strinich pulled for a sub at 70 minutes twice in a row. Emotionally, they've experienced twice the drama of England's PK epic, and one that will leave their shooters with greater head trips than England's carefree youth (even Modric's two shootout goals have been just as bad as his miss that could have sewed up the Denmark game).

I think I’ve gotten England all wrong from the start: Offensive dynamism! Shoddy defense! Lingard the uncanny lockpicker! Somehow they’d built us up only to pop the bubble! None of this has turned out to be true, other than the sense that they’d at least give us a ride. They’ve done more than that, though hardly in the manner I’d expected, and it’s been fun to get the on the Southgate Express.

I did get one thing right: Sterling’s poor touches at the worst possible time would frustrate, and no player seems to incite more varied opinions, from those dazzled by his brilliant running and the headaches he poses for defenders to those--like me--absolutely flummoxed by the lack of the final product. But it would seem he has to come good at some point, right? So I thought last game, but again was wrong. So, this game, surely...?

England has proved lethal on corners and from the spot, and terribly anemic everywhere else. We finally got a glimpse of latent potential when Lingard and Alli hooked up for the quick hitter to the back post, a finish Spurs fans have seen quite a few times. Kane has looked dead tired in the past two matches, watched hawkishly by defenders and running on fumes after the 70th minute, but Southgate dare not sub him lest a PK arise, or just some greater talismanic faith in the English leader to poke something in. While it was good to see Lingard have the assist, the central creator for the side has come from Kieran Trippier; only Neymar and De Bruyne have created more chances than England’s right back. He’s had a fantastic tournament and I suspect will give Croatia’s left side.

Meanwhile, England’s gotten a fantastic tournament from their backline. Walker and Maguire haven’t really surprised me with their confidence, though Maguire has caught the eye with some of his surges with the ball. But Stones...Stones….Stones has fulfilled all the promise that he seemed to carry so effortlessly when he burst upon the scene at Goodison Park. His graceful movement, sure touch, and easy confidence quickly made him a target for top squads--and then once he arrived at the Etihad, he seemed to invariably make crucial mistakes. He was second choice to Otamendi, a healthy Vincent Kompany, and then Guardiola forked over 57 million Euros--the second most ever for a defender and a Manchester City record--for Atletico Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte, not exactly a vote of confidence in a player who seemed to melt under the big club pressure. I assumed we’d see the same here, but it’s been anything but. Probably my favorite element of the English side has been Stones’ arrogance with the ball; his coolness has been central to Southgate’s determination to build out of the back. Whether he can keep that up for another game remains to be seen, but he’s been superior up to this point.

England line up against a Croatia team that seemed to be falling to pieces last we saw them, with Subasic, Strinic, and Vrsaljko all failing, and the latter a serious doubt (and out according to the Spanish paper Marca). Emotionally, they seemed stretched to the breaking point, and one has to wonder how much they have left. They will be heartened, no doubt, by a semi-final they’ll have to think that they can win, that they are the better team. The heart of that belief will come from the best midfield in the tournament, and if we take PKs out of the equation, the best player in Luka Modric. The Bike Messenger King and his sidekick Ivan Rakitic have the ability to find whatever seams the English back 3 offer, and I suspect they will either create or score a goal. Southgate has been at pains to stress not giving up dangerous free kicks with silly fouls, a strategy that has largely paid off, but Croatia have the means to unlock them.

The front 3 are a versatile set of runners, with particular pluck shown by the 24-year old Eintracht Frankfurt man Ante Rebic, who has an exceptional work rate. Croatia also have a sub who can make a difference in Real’s Mateo Kovacic, a quick and incisive player who comes in intent on making an impact.

The Croatian centerback core of Domagoj Vida (the best name in the tournament by my reckoning) and Dejan Lovren has been the equal of the England Back 3, but given the injuries and utter exhaustion on their fullbacks, that’s going to be a stress point. Recollect that it was Croatia rather than Denmark who were getting weaker in extra time, and while they looked more robust on the attack than Russia, physically they were dropping like flies. Strinic and Vrsaljko are strong but if the latter goes down it sounds like we might get Corluka in the center with Vida on the right, and that’s a much funkier combination. I’ll just add that Domagoj has got to get ready for his Game of Thrones role as a white walker--he’s straight out of central casting.

Will Croatia’s marvelous midfield outclass the English? I suspect it will, and it has the forwards to finish. But if England can keep the game close until late, I think the legs of Croatia might begin to give out, a great time to see Marcus Rashford enter. I’m pretty torn about picking this one; if it had been England that played back-to-back 120-minute games, it would be an easy choice. However, the young legs might just be a blessing here. Whoever makes it through can bask in glory for a night, and then await the surely rude reality that awaits in the form of the Belgium-France winner.

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