THE BIG MATCH
Croatia v England
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, tonight, 7pm, live on ITV
ENGLAND play their biggest match for a generation tonight with a place in the World Cup final at stake.
Bobby Robson’s class of 1990 were the last side to get this far when England’s troubled relationship with penalty shoot-outs got under way following the 1-1 draw with West Germany.
Just three of England’s likely starters in Moscow were born before that heady night in Turin — Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson were only weeks old making Ashley Young, at 32, very much the old man of the current side.
Standing between them and a first final since 1966 are a far more experienced Croatia line-up — all but three of their starting XI against Russia pre-date that day or, more pertinently, they pre-date their country’s first game as a national team in October 1990.
Their record since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia is impressive, losing to eventual winners — Germany in the quarter-finals and France in the semi-finals — at both Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup.
The likes of Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban are viewed as Croatia’s golden generation but their achievements have been matched 20 years on after impressive victories against Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland and rather tenser penalty shoot-out triumphs over Denmark and Russia.
Could those extra exertions tell on an ageing side as they face Gareth Southgate’s vibrant young guns?
Perhaps, but while this is huge for England, make no mistake about what it means to Croatia. As midfielder Ivan Rakitic said: ‘There is nothing more inspiring than playing a World Cup semi-final against England, the country where football was born.’
Dele Alli v Luka Modric
MIDFIELD is undoubtedly the area in which Croatia are strongest with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pulling the strings for Zlatko Dalic’s side.
It combines the playmaking abilities of Barcelona’s Rakitic, 30, with 32-year-old Modric, who has spent the last six years with Real Madrid — winning the Champions League four times during that spell — since lighting up the Premier League at Tottenham.
Dele Alli (pictured above) did not arrive at the north London club until 2015 but Modric found out about him quickly enough, having been famously nutmegged by the England man in a pre-season game that summer.
More significantly, Alli was the star of the show when Spurs ran Modric and Madrid ragged in a 3-1 Champions League victory at Wembley last November.
Hampered by injury, the 22-year-old Alli may have been something of a slow burner at this World Cup but his headed goal capped England’s 2-0 quarter-final victory over Sweden and his own best performance in Russia so far.
Modric (above) shone later that night with a man-of-the-match display in the 2-2 draw with Russia, although his successful penalty in the shoot-out victory was a nerve-jangler with Igor Akinfeev getting his hand to the ball and it only finding the net via a post.
Modric would certainly come into contention to win the Ballon d’Or if Croatia make it through to their first ever major international final.
But the big questions are whether Croatia have the legs in their team to match the creative energy of Alli and if they can handle England’s set-pieces.
2 — Previous World Cup semi-final appearances for England — beating Eusebio and Portugal 2-1 in 1966 and losing 4-3 on penalties to West Germany in 1990
5-1 — Victory for England over Croatia the last time the sides met, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard scoring twice each with Wayne Rooney getting the other goal in a World Cup qualifier in 2009
4 — Wins for England in their seven previous games against Croatia, with two defeats and a 0-0 draw in the first meeting between the countries in 1996
32 — Years since Gary Lineker became England’s only winner of the Golden Boot. Harry Kane is currently two clear at the top of the standings on six
8 — Set-piece goals for England at this World Cup, the most for any country since 1966 when semi-finalists Portugal also managed eight
3-2 — Croatia, then managed by Slaven Bilic, beat England at Wembley in November 2007 to pip them to qualification for Euro 2008 and end Steve McClaren’s reign as Three Lions manager
8 — Different goalscorers for Croatia at the World Cup finals. Going into the semi-finals only Belgium (nine), had more
65 — Per cent possession for Croatia in their quarter-final with Russia but they still needed a penalty shoot-out to reach the last four
2-1 — Defeat for Croatia in their only previous appearance in the World Cup semi-finals, despite Davor Suker putting them ahead against hosts France in 1998
5th — Game in a row in Russia that Croatia will wear their change strip of black-and- blue checks tonight, avoiding a clash with their usual red and white, while England will be wearing all-white