The build-up to the second FIFA World Cup 2018 semi-final encounter between Croatia and England has predominantly been an exercise in underlining two contrasting styles employed by the competing sides.
England, having scored a tournament high 8 set-piece goals, representing an exalted 73% of their total of 11, have been branded by some, rather unflatteringly, as a team of “Harry Kane and ten giants”.
Croatia, meanwhile, have earned the reputation of being the more puritanical “ball-playing” side of the two, thriving on the wizardry of the vaunted midfield duo of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to prise open opposition defenses with a more deliberate and considered style of play.
The tie lies in danger of being billed, simply, as a battle between brain and brawn. However, no top-level football contest is this bland in the design of its battle lines, certainly not a World Cup semi-final.
The youthful trio of Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling is charged with being chief creators from open play for England.
While their fleet-footed dovetailing between the lines has, at times, been exciting to watch, the major, and perhaps only, criticism levelled at this English side is its inability to fluidly transition from its defensive third to the attacking third, when in possession.
But, choosing to paint a picture of this English side as a creatively moribund, workmen-like collection of individuals who live only to serve their sole world-class talent, Harry Kane, would be skating on thin ice.
Had they, especially Raheem Sterling, been slightly more adept at putting away the chances that have come their way from open play in previous matches, we might not have been looking at this side with such a heavy pair of set-piece glasses.
The English threat from open play has not escaped the attention of Croatian Manager, Zlatko Dalic, who opted to highlight the qualities of Raheem Sterling in a press conference on Sunday. Just how seriously he sees English ingenuity as a threat will be made clear by his team selection.
The conundrum facing him is whether to deploy a two-man midfield of Modric and Rakitic in a 4-4-2 formation, as they did against Russia, or to provide the dynamic duo a defensive supplement in the form of Marcelo Brozovic, sacrificing forward Andrej Kramaric, who scored Croatia’s equalizer against Russia.
What should also not be ignored is Dele Alli’s uncanny ability to pop up with important goals in big games. Alli’s penchant to burst a lung from midfield and get behind the last line of defence remains a precious commodity in the game, a reserve of its most mercurial and cerebral proponents.
The man who will be aware of this fact, more than most, is Croatian captain, Luka Modric, who saw his club side Real Madrid suffer at the hands of Juventus midfielder Blaise Matuidi’s repeated forays into the box, which caused panic among the Madrid back-line and allowed, slightly ironically, Croatian forward Mario Mandzukic to profit twice and almost eliminate Madrid in a Champions League quarter-final tie in April.
At the sharp end of the field, the paths of England’s star striker, Harry Kane and Croatian central defender, Dejan Lovren are set to collide.
This represents a tantalizing chance for the Croat to set the record straight as it is only fair to say that the Spurs forward has got the better of their duel so far, at club level, forcing the ignominy of an early shower on the Liverpool defender in their Premier League clash at Wembley last October, following a tactical switch from Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp.
Moving on to collective sub-plots, the Croatians boast the fifth tallest side at the World Cup Finals, tallest among the sides remaining in the competition, standing 184.9 cm tall on average, per a FIFA and CIES Football Observatory report, which will be of serious concern to the English team and an ironic role reversal could well be on the cards, as the English hunters might become the hunted.
Moreover, the Croats would have rightly pointed to dividends gained on the mental fortitude front from their two penalty shoot-out victories in the preceding rounds as a potential balance-tipping factor, had their opponents, England, not been the only other team remaining in the tournament to have enjoyed the buoyancy from a similar success.
England are one of only two teams at the World Cup finals, each player in whose squad is plying their trade in their own domestic league. Croatia, in stark contrast, have no such players. Not even one.
Support for the two teams back home, at the beginning of the tournament at least, too could not have been in greater disparity. The pending case of perjury against captain, Luka Modric allegedly aiding Ex-Vice President of Croatian Football federation, Zdravko Mamic had cast a murky shadow over Croatian World Cup fan-fare.
The English nation, on the other hand has found it much easier to get behind this refreshingly young and relatable band of brothers than the elitist and superstar-laden bunches from recent World Cups.
Toeing the brain v/s brawn line to look at this tasty tie sprinkled with intriguing tactical nuances, individual and collective sub-plots and striking contradictions is frankly, facile.
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