Let’s face it, many handicappers did not expect England to get quite this far in the 2018 World Cup.
Sure, we all knew that Harry Kane could score goals. Most of us had an inkling that an all-Premier League squad could run, pass and tackle with the best in the world. But remember the pre-tournament hype about Messi, Ronaldo, Salah, and Robert Lewandowski?
Not only has Kane led his side farther than any of those superstars did, but the English are actually moneyline favorites in the semifinals.
Only Croatia stands between the Three Lions and a bid to face the winner of France vs Belgium for the gold in Moscow on July 15th.
Bookies have conceded that the Lions can bite. Sportsbetting.ag lists the English as a (-165) favorite to advance to the final. Yet Croatia is still an unfamiliar football nation compared to France, Germany, Brazil and Argentina. That creates a tricky betting scenario.
Imagine if China, or Poland, or Spain suddenly produced 15 or 20 of the greatest ice hockey talents in the world. There would be a temporary disconnect between the actual skill of the team and the way that gamblers and handicappers viewed them. “But…but…it’s China!” Unfamiliarity creates as many long-odds underdogs as actual disparity between rosters.
The task is to figure out whether the Croatians are for real. If the Blazers’ 3-0 win over Argentina and subsequent run to the World Cup medal round isn’t a fluke, is England strong enough to handle them anyway?
Let’s take a step-by-step look at both national teams from the box forward – goalkeeping, backline, midfield, strikers and finally the 2 managers. That should help figure out whether this is an even or lopsided matchup of household names vs a mysterious opponent.
England vs Croatia: Goalkeeping Analysis
Jordan Pickford endured mild criticism after letting in a goal against Belgium that the Goalkeepers Union found iffy. But the group-stage match with the Red Devils didn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Both sides reached the knockout stage and both are still playing.
Pickford felt like an unknown variable as a keeper starting in his first World Cup as a 25-year-old. But questions would appear to have been answered by his marvelous performance against Colombia, in which the Everton star stopped 2 of 5 penalty kicks to carry the day after 2 hours of tough football.
Croatian keeper Danijel Subasic has been fabulous at times during his nation’s dramatic run to the semifinals. If Pickford is a hero for enduring one nail-biting shootout, Subasic is a penalty-kick god after winning 2 matches in a row that were drawn after 120+ minutes.
But Subasic is also injured and could miss the England match. That would leave Lovre Kalinić, a modest talent from the Belgian league who has only 12 international caps to credit, as the starting keeper on Wednesday.
England vs Croatia: Backline Analysis
Football commentators can be heard saying, “Club xyz has a terrific attack and great striking, but maybe not enough on the backline.” Yet rather than drawing match after match 5 goals to 5, those clubs often don’t score as many times as they’re expected to.
As in any sport, a proud brow depends on a strong spine. England’s backline has been brilliant throughout the World Cup, conceding 4 goals in 5 fixtures. But the Three Lions corps of defenders is also a reason why Queen Elizabeth’s boys have been able to solve opposing GKs when needed.
England’s impressive defense has been led by youthful sensations Harry Maguire and John Stones. The Premier League standouts have scored 3 times in the tournament.
Meanwhile, backline play could be an Achilles Heel for the Croatia squad, especially with a pair of key injuries that could potentially shake up the squad. Sime Vrsaljko, the 26-year-old from Atlético Madrid, has been ruled out for the match with a knee injury. That puts added pressure on Turkish club pro Domagoj Vida and Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren.
The gaps in Croatia’s defense will make defending Harry Kane and England’s vast array of set pieces much more difficult.
Midfielders in the England-Croatia World Cup Semifinal
If there’s a potential saving grace for Croatia in Wednesday’s match, it’s the midfield. Luka Modrić of Real Madrid and Ivan Rakitić of Barcelona can cause havoc for a disciplined and talented side such as England. The veteran Spanish club pros specialize in controlling pace and distributing the ball effectively. It will take a collective effort by the English midfield to disrupt the dynamic duo of Blazers.
The Three Lions are concerned about Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, who suffered a hamstring injury in the quarterfinals. Reports are mixed, but manager Gareth Southgate is hinting to reporters that Henderson will play. What’s more, while England’s midfield may not be headed by 2 bonafide superstars, the unit could prove to be deeper and more versatile over a 90+ or 120+ minute match.
Tottenham Hotspur newcomer Dele Alli and Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard have each produced a goal. 23-year-old speedster Raheem Sterling has helped to create dozens of scoring opportunities for England’s attack. Southgate’s preferred 3-1-4-2 formation could put pressure on the Lions’ midfield to hustle toward their own box after turnovers, but the roster has the speed and awareness to handle any unforeseen accidents along with the intelligence to refrain from risky passing.
England vs Croatia Semifinal: Forwards
The main scoring threat against Pickford will be Croatian striker Mario Mandžukić, a crafty veteran from Juventus who is always looking for a breakout run. He has only accounted for a goal and an assist at the World Cup so far. Andrej Kramarić, a 27-year-old from 1899 Hoffenheim, netted his maiden goal of the tournament against Russia in the quarterfinal.
Skipper Zlatko Dalić favors a 4-3-2-1 attack with Mandžukić as the lead striker and Modrić and Rakitić controlling the flow of the game from midfield. It’s a conservative, defense-first approach that will hopefully keep Croatia in the match going into the second 45 minutes.
But there may not be a formation or a strategy that can hold off Harry Kane. The 24-year-old has carried the day for England throughout the 2018 World Cup, taking credit for 6 of England’s 11 goals. No other striker in the World Cup has come close to equaling Kane’s output. In league play, Kane has gone toe-to-toe with Croatian defender Dejan Lovren and torched him on numerous occasions.
Kane’s youth was touted as a potential downside for the Three Lions going into Russia. But at this stage, it’s an advantage.
The “Hurri-Kane” is more than the finest goal-scorer left standing in the bracket. He’s a healthy and dangerous pair of 90-minute legs among rosters populated by fatigued and nicked-up bodies.
An added boost for England’s attack is 31-year-old Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy’s recovery from a groin injury which hampered him before and during the match against Sweden.
Three Lions vs Blazers: World Cup Semifinal Odds and Prediction
England-to-advance at (-165) is the surest lock of any wager in the knockout stage to date. It’s hard to imagine a less-than-100% Subasic or a healthy Kalinić holding off a squad of Premier League standouts for 120 minutes plus stoppage time.
Bookies may be nervous about giving England the shorter odds it deserves. Fresh memories include the underdogs reaching the quarterfinals and the semifinals on penalty kicks following emotional clashes with Denmark and host Russia respectively. But even that sort of magic can’t last forever.
Imagine an NBA team advancing through the playoffs on free-throw contests against superior-shooting teams. As they say in the United Kingdom, at some point the lamb must bite the butcher.
If the Brits-to-advance line is too low on payoff for your fancy, consider England at (+135) on the 3-way moneyline. But remember that the 3-way market only applies to the first 90 minutes plus stoppage time.
England is an even more solid bet to simply reach the final against France or Belgium, and the (-165) market still allows the FIFA gambler to nudge her stake upward before the last round of betting on the coming weekend’s gala.