Midfield matchups the key for England, Croatia in semifinal clash

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England team players celebrate their victory over Sweden at the end of the quarterfinal match between Sweden and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Samara Arena, in Samara, Russia, Saturday, July 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader )

England and Croatia have exceeded expectations just by making it to the semifinals, but neither is ready for their fairytale run to end yet. The two nations square off tomorrow at 2 p.m. on FOX43 for the right to face France in Sunday’s title game. It would be England’s first World Cup final since they lifted the trophy on home soil in 1966, and Croatia’s first-ever appearance on soccer’s biggest stage.

The Croatian attack is the epitome of balance. The nine goals they’ve scored at the tournament have come from eight different players. On the other side, star striker Harry Kane has tucked away six of England’s 11 goals. Stopping Kane will certainly be a central part of Croatia’s game plan, but to assume he is the Three Lions’ only weapon would not be wise.

Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard cause opposing defenders headaches with their constant movement on and off the ball. Wing backs Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young are a crucial facet of the English offense as well, tasked with getting forward and whipping in crosses.

England have been the driving force behind one of the defining trends of this World Cup: the unusually-high proportion of goals scored from set pieces. England dominate on these types of plays, with eight of their 11 goals coming off corners, penalties, or free kicks.

Finding a way to limit set piece opportunities will be a focal point for Croatia. They’ve allowed just four goals in five games, but three of those were via (you guessed it) set pieces.

This match will also be decided in the midfield, where Croatia has Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic acting as master puppeteers. The Croatian system is built around the prolific pivot of those two playmakers pulling the strings in the center of the park.

England’s Jordan Henderson needs to be at his best to contain the dangerous duo, and it wouldn’t be a shock if manager Gareth Southgate decides to start the gritty Eric Dier alongside Henderson for added fortification in that area.

As they did against Sweden in the quarterfinals, England may look to circumvent the Croatian midfield’s ability to control the game by funneling their offense out wide. Croatia could counter by instructing wingers Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic to pressure further up the field, restricting the ability of Young and Trippier to join English attacks.

In terms of possession and passing numbers, the two teams are nearly identical. They each average 55 percent possession, and have completed almost the exact same amount of total passes (Croatia has 2,701 to England’s 2,670).

But the most important statistic might be minutes. After needing extra time and a penalty shootout to advance in their last two matches, Croatia’s entire starting lineup has now played more than 420 minutes at the tournament. Only three English players have surpassed that mark. In a contest that hinges on so many individual matchups in the midfield and on the wings, tired Croatian legs will give England the edge.

Prediction: England, 2-1

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