England vs Croatia: Interesting duels to look out for

Gareth Southgate’s team will have to get past the massive challenge Croatia presents in Wednesday’s semifinal. Sportstar looks at the player battles that may prove decisive.

Croatia's forward Mario Mandzukic (L) and teammates attend a training session at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Tuesday.   -  AFP

“It’s coming home” has swept social media and the football fraternity since England beat Colombia on penalties in the round of 16.

Ex-England players, national team supporters and those representing the country in Russia have taken to the chorus from the Three Lions song released ahead of the 1996 European Championship, in reference to England hosting its first major football tournament since the 1966 World Cup.

Of course, the chant is also in the belief that the Cup might finally be coming home after 52 years.

If that is to happen, Gareth Southgate’s team will have to get past the massive challenge Croatia presents in Wednesday’s semifinal.

Croatia’s passage to the semifinals has not been easy. But, with quality players such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, the belief within the camp will be that England can be upstaged.

Here, Sportstar looks at the player battles that may prove decisive.

Harry Kane vs Dejan Lovren


Kane remains the top-scorer in the current edition with six goals, three of which have come from the spot.  His movement, nous of being at the right place at the right time and ball-striking ability make him a lethal forward who is arguably the biggest threat to Croatia.

Lovren himself has had a good World Cup. He has won an average of five aerials so far and needs to be sharp in this aspect of his game against England, which has scored the most goals — eight, five from corners and free-kicks, and three from the penalty spot — from set-pieces in the tournament.

This battle in and around the penalty area has the potential to be decisive. 

Luka Modric vs Dele Alli/Jordan Henderson


Croatia surprisingly lacked control during the early stages against Russia. And, in the post-match press conference, Zlatko Dalic said his team “lacked a body in midfield.” Having played with only one centre-forward (Mario Mandzukic) until the round of 16, Dalic brought in Andrej Kramaric (in place of Milan Badelj) to partner Mandzukic up front, while Modric and Rakitic played as the double pivot against Russia’s three attacking midfielders (Denis Cheryshev, Aleksandr Golovin and Alexander Samedov).

Modric wasn’t effective too, playing as a deep-lying midfielder. Against England, Modric is likely to play as a No. 10. Badelj or Marcelo Brozovic will probably replace Kramaric and sit alongside Rakitic in front of the backline. If the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder plays as a No. 10, Henderson, England’s deepest midfielder, will be the one picking him up. If Dalic sets his team up in a 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1), Modric could play as No. 6 or No. 8 and come face to face with Dele Alli (in picture).

Modric is to Croatia what Kane is to England and this midfield battle will no doubt have a bearing on the result.

Ante Rebic vs Ashley Young


Playing as the left wing-back, Young has held his own so far, but Wednesday’s tussle against Rebic on Croatia’s right could provide his biggest test yet. Croatia will look to exploit England having a right-footed player at left wing-back and Rebic’s pace and willingness to take on players will test Young’s defensive qualities.

If England does dominate possession, Young will become more involved in his team’s offensive play and thereby turn the tables on Rebic. Rebic’s only goal in the World Cup came in the 3-0 group win over Argentina, but he was lively against Russia and will be one of Croatia’s key players against the Three Lions.

Mario Mandzukic vs John Stones


Such has been John Stones’ form for England that former Germany captain Lothar Matthaus has hailed the Manchester City defender as “one of the best in the world.”

On Wednesday, however, Stones will come up against one of the most physically-imposing and hardworking centre-forwards in the modern game — Mandzukic. While the Atletico Madrid man doesn’t have the pace or trickery to bother Stones, he has an aerial presence that will test the former Everton and Barnsley defender. This duel in and around the England box promises to be fascinating.

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