England will feel the stars are starting to align at this extraordinary World Cup but so, too, will Croatia who, having prevailed in the previous round against Denmark despite missing three penalties, have now eliminated the turbo-charged hosts in a similarly heart thumping shoot-out.
In one sense, England may be grateful to have avoided a semi-final meeting with Russia in Moscow, and what could have been one of the most politically charged games in history after the poisoning of a former KGB agent turned British spy and his daughter in Salisbury in March.
But on the other hand, Croatia could well provide a tougher obstacle on Wednesday night, all the more so if their captain and metronome Luka Modric hits the sort of stride he did here from half-time onwards and fortune continues to shine on Zlatko Dalic’s side.
“We expect a very difficult, tight and demanding match,” Modric said. “We watched their game against Sweden and we saw how good they are from dead-balls. We’ll have to focus more on defending from set-pieces because we conceded from a set-piece [against Russia], so we’ll have to improve that element of our game. We’ve already done some thing bigs, but this team can do more.”
Whatever the outcome, there is no danger of Gareth Southgate being diminished in the way Steve McClaren so cruelly was in the rain at Wembley in 2007. An umbrella may have shielded McClaren from the elements that evening, but not the ridicule that came his way after Croatia’s 3-2 victory, which denied England a place at Euro 2008 and saw the manager infamously dubbed “The Wally with the Brolly”.
That all seems a very long time ago now and, as England look to banish 52 years of hurt, Southgate and his squad will no doubt be drawing inspiration from more positive encounters with Croatia, such as a swashbuckling 4-2 victory at Euro 2004 when a teenage Wayne Rooney ran riot or Theo Walcott’s hat-trick in a 4-1 World Cup qualifying win in Zagreb in 2008.
England may dare to believe, but Croatia are coursing with confidence as well and their luck is most certainly in.
They will say it was only Sweden, they will say England were indebted to goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with three quite brilliant saves, they will even say the nations in the other half of the quarter-final draw will all have won this tie comfortably but, frankly, who cares? Who really cares? England are in the semi-final of the World Cup, where they will face Croatia who saw off the World Cup hosts Russia on penalties, and they deserve it. How they deserve it. They are in the last four for the first time since 1990, for 28 long years and only the third time ever, and the dreams, the hopes, the euphoria will rise and rise and rise even further until they play again in Moscow on Wednesday.
The unlikely reconnection is complete and the summer of 2018 will rank alongside those of 1990 and 1996, when semi-finals were reached, and maybe it has surpassed them already given how low expectation was and how high disenchantment had become in recent years and tournaments. A corner has been turned which, given the number of goals scored from corners, is pretty apt.
But can they go all the way? Can they bring it home as they did 52 years ago? England keep getting told they will have to play better but there are now only four countries who can be crowned world champions and they are one of them.
At the final whistle Three Lions played and then, as a jubilant Gareth Southgate pumped the air in front of the England fans, there was The Beatles and “All You Need is Love”. And there is so much to love about this new England.
From Southgate to captain Harry Kane and throughout the squad with their own individual stories and their superbly coached approach and their never ending team-work and desire to play for England and do so in the right way. Like brothers, Kane said, and the band of brothers are heading for Moscow for at least one more game and maybe two with the final in the Russian capital on July 15.
The goals were scored by Harry Maguire and Dele Alli and both were well-worked thumping headers and those two also have wonderful stories to tell. But they were not alone in standing tall. There was John Stones, now a leader in defence, there was Jordan Henderson, controlling midfield, and there was Raheem Sterling who may have missed a golden chance but who stretched the Swedes when all they wanted to do was stay compact and grind this out to a closer finish. And there was Kieran Trippier, who is a kind of English Cafu with a David Beckham delivery.
All you need to know about Croatia
What is their World Cup record?
Twenty years ago Croatia reached the last four with a brilliant team including the likes of Davor Suker, Zvonomir Boban and Slaven Bilic. They knocked Germany out in the last eight before losing to France in the semi-finals, but since then they have struggled - until this year. Group Stage exits in 2002, 2006 and 2014 were split by a failure to qualify in 2010 but this Croatian side is the best since those days of the late 90s.
What’s their history with England?
England have generally had the upper hand - with one obvious exception. Steve McClaren’s reign as manager was brought to an end by a 3-2 defeat to Croatia at Wembley that ended England’s hopes of qualifying for the 2008 European Championships, but apart from that the Three Lions’ record is good. They have met once previously in tournament football, when Wayne Rooney scored twice in a 4-2 win at Euro 2004, and Theo Walcott claimed a hat-trick in a 4-1 win in Zagreb in 2008.
How do they play?
In Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Croatia have arguably the best central midfield in the competition. Everything flows through them, but Mario Mandzukic is an excellent frontman and Dejan Lovren has enjoyed a fine tournament at the back. Keep an eye out, too, for Ivan Perisic, a man Jose Mourinho desperately wanted to bring to Manchester United last summer and one who has yet to fully catch fire at this tournament.
What is their form like?
Croatia were arguably the best side in the Group Stages, with their 3-0 win over Argentina certainly the finest individual performance, while they comfortably beat Nigeria and still won against Iceland despite resting a number of key players. But they have been less impressive in the knockout stages, requiring penalties to beat both Denmark and the hosts, Russia.
Who is the manager?
Zlatko Dalic was appointed last year after a successful three-year stint in charge of Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates. A defensive midfielder in his playing days, Dalic guided Croatia to a 4-1 aggregate win over Greece in the play-offs to secure their place in Russia.
Any famous faces in the crowd?
Mainly former footballers. Suker is now the President of the Croatian FA and attends every game, while another President - head of the government Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic - is a vociferous fan who is happy to wear her replica kit cheer from the VIP section, as we saw on Saturday night. There was also an excellent - albeit unverified - story last week that American actor Clint Eastwood has become a fan and requested a Croatian shirt to be sent to him.
Source: The Telegraph