England vs Croatia takes place tomorrow, as both teams vy for a spot in the final of the 2018 World Cup.
For England, tomorrow is their first World Cup semi-final since 1990 and their second ever semi-final on foreign soil.
Gareth Southgate has created an exciting young squad, built upon an attractive style of play and a fearless attitude rarely seen from English sides in international football.
For Croatia, this is the first time they have reached this stage since 1998, and they are looking to reach their first ever major tournament final.
The Croatian midfield is one of the most talented in the tournament and has played a huge part in getting them far.
As the anticipation builds for this closely matched battle, where are the key battles on the pitch that will ultimately decide who goes on to the final and who will have to settle for the third-place playoff?
Modric vs Henderson
These two have already faced off this season in Real Madrid vs Liverpool Champions League final. Modric and Real came out on top that time, beating Liverpool 3-1, but Henderson is having a stellar tournament and will be looking to get one over on the former Tottenham playmaker.
Modric has been Croatia’s key component in Russia this summer with his two goals making him the top scorer, as well as completing more minutes than any other Croatian player with 485. Kevin De Bruyne is, in fact, the only player to have created more chances left at the tournament than Modric.
Coming off the back of a very strong domestic season with Liverpool, Jordan Henderson has now taken up a vital role for England in front of the back-three. His pass completion drops quite low at 80.6% but that is because he is the engine room making the team tick. Henderson has attempted more passes per game than any other English midfielder at the World Cup, with an average of 59.3.
Modric and Henderson possess very different styles of play, but the one who can come out on top in this personal battle could have a big say in which side progresses to the final.
With concerns over Jordan Henderson’s fitness tomorrow, Modric will be looking to exploit any weaknesses a less-than-100% Henderson can offer up – England fans will hope that Henderson’s injury is merely superficial.
Kane vs Lovren
Harry Kane’s first World Cup has seen the best return from any English striker at a major tournament since Gary Lineker’s six at the 1990 World Cup. One more for Kane and he will be out on his own as England’s most prolific player at a single campaign.
There’s previous here as well. Kane scored three times for Tottenham against Liverpool last season, and Lovren didn’t enjoy the best of times marking the 24-year-old striker. In fact, his worst performance of the season for Liverpool came against Kane’s Tottenham side – Lovren was substituted after just 31 minutes in a crushing 4-1 defeat for the Reds.
However, Lovren enjoyed a much better second half of the season playing alongside Virgil van Dijk and has had a solid World Cup so far. He has the best dribble defence in his team with an average of just 0.4 dribbles making it past him per-game. He has also formed a strong partnership in central defence with Besiktas’ Domagoj Vida, maintaining this will be key when trying to contain the tournament’s top scorer.
Kane is England’s most fouled play by far with an average of 3.8 offences being committed against him per-game. This has been key in winning penalties, which Kane has duly and confidently dispatched, and if England can start to find their main talent from open play then this amazing World Cup run could just get that little bit sweeter.
Mandzukic vs Maguire
Mario Mandzukic is not an out-and-out goalscorer, but he does lead the line very well for Croatia.
His game is massively focused on winning duels with defenders, holding the ball up and bringing the talents of Modric, Rakitic and co. into play. Harry Maguire usually plays on the left of England’s back three and Mandzukic may seek to distance himself from Maguire and take on a more winnable duel with Kyle Walker.
But if England want to truly nullify the threat that Mandzukic, who is looking to add to his one goal so far, brings then they may give Harry Maguire a man-marking job to keep the Juventus forward quiet.
If that were to happen, you would favour Maguire to win the aerial battle.
He has won more aerial duels than any other player in the England squad with 33 – Mandzukic is second for Croatia with 19 but that is some way off Maguire’s success.
Strinic vs Trippier
Kieran Trippier has been one of England’s ‘unlikely heroes’ at this World Cup.
The Tottenham Hotspurs right-back has been a revelation down the right, his crosses caused all manner of problems for the Tunisian defence in the opening group game and that theme has continued as England have progressed.
Ivan Strinic is the man who will be tasked with containing Trippier.
Strinic is perceived as the weak-link in the Croatian defence and is often scapegoated by fans when things go wrong for Croatia.
Whether that is fair or not, given that Ivan Perisic doesn’t provide him with much cover, is up for debate but it was clear that Russia targeted that area as they forced Croatia to penalties in their quarter-final.
Russia’s Mario Fernandes bombing forward from full-back and wide man, Alexander Samedov, caused Strinic problems throughout the game and Gareth Southgate will have identified this as an area for England to exploit.
Kieran Trippier has created 13 chances at the 2018 World Cup, more than any other defender at the tournament, and, if he can continue that form here, he may just provide Harry Kane with the bullets that fire England into their first World Cup final since 1966.