This one’s for you. For all the god-awful qualifying games against tiny European nations you had to sit through. For all the listless friendlies at a vacant Wembley where the Mexican waves would begin after 20 minutes and you lost count of the substitutions. For all the times you would come to dread international week and its drab, tawdry pallor. For the times you would watch some far superior side rip a tournament to shreds with quick passing and effortless movement, and wonder forlornly whether you would ever see a day when England could be that good.
It’s for St Etienne and Shizuoka, Bloemfontein and Manaus. It’s for Muller and Maradona, Bergkamp and Brolin, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, Suarez and Sigthorsson. It’s San Marino in eight seconds, it’s McClaren under his umbrella, it’s Harry Kane taking corners, it’s Lampard’s goal bouncing over the line, it’s Pirlo doing the Panenka, it’s Beckham’s metatarsal, it’s Rooney on a stretcher, it’s nice to see your own fans booing you.
And so to the final thrusts of an extraordinary World Cup campaign that has turned the impartial into the partisan, converted agnostics to believers, driven the cobwebs and the apathy from English football. It’s 1,800 miles from the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow to the White Cliffs of Dover, and yet deep into the third summer of love, these 23 men and their magnificently-waistcoasted coach have somehow never felt closer. Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and Sweden have come and gone. Belgium may yet resurface. But first, and most importantly: Croatia.
How do you approach the biggest game in a generation? How do you prepare for a game that nothing can prepare you for? How do you shackle one of the world’s greatest midfielders in the form of his life? Well, if you’re Gareth Southgate’s England, you just keep doing what you’ve been doing. “Why would we change now?” Eric Dier asked the room on Monday afternoon. “We are not going to change for anybody. We are going to continue playing the way we have been.”
Coming at around the same time the Cabinet was dissolving into a puddle of its own indecision, you wondered idly whether it is the England football team who now represent us far better than politicians ever did: principled to the point of stubbornness, resilient to the point of recklessness, honest and open and humble and intelligent. And yet football is not, nor has ever been, simply a game of character and will. Once the final strains of God Save the Queen have ebbed away, the giant flags are folded up and carried off the pitch, and referee Cuneyt Cakir blows his whistle, all that will determine England’s fate is their ability to make and execute the right decisions at the right time.
Tactically, England could do a lot worse than following the advice of Mick Carter, the character played by Danny Dyer in Eastenders. In a hastily re-shot scene for Monday night’s episode, Mick tells his mum Shirley how England should approach the Croatia game: “I’ll tell you what we wanna do, stick someone on Modric early doors. He gets more space than NASA, that little mug. And then we just sit back, wait for a corner, Harry Maguire, boom, sticks it right in the net. Ta-ta Croatia.”
Southgate’s pre-game instructions may be a little more intricate than that, but the basic premise holds true. Croatia will attack England, but they will do so from a low base. Kane and Raheem Sterling are unlikely to find much space in behind the defence, and so runners from midfield - Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli - could be England’s main route to goal. England’s dominance at set pieces is no secret, and Southgate will have been encouraged by the way Russia were able to burgle their late equaliser in Saturday’s quarter-final, a close-range header from a free-kick, with the Croatian defence so deep it was almost on top of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.
A slow, steady game will suit Croatia. They are the superior passing side; Luka Modric is perhaps the best distributor left in the tournament, with Ivan Rakitic not far behind, and Mario Mandzukic offering an outlet for long diagonals or short passes into the channel. Croatia will look to expose Jordan Henderson in midfield by dragging him towards one flank, and then switching the ball quickly to the other. Andrej Kramaric and Ante Rebic provide multiple penalty-box threats, although the injury to right-back Sime Vrsaljko - through whom a lot of Croatia’s attacks have flowed this tournament - is a blow.
England, by contrast, would prefer a fast, broken game of transitions. Even if the Inter Milan defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic returns to the side to offer extra cover, England’s best hope against a team that has played two consecutive 120-minute games with penalties is surely to keep the tempo high, attack with the pace of Sterling, break through the lines as Denis Cheryshev did so effectively for Russia the other night. At the back, Kyle Walker - who Mandzukic will probably target in the air - will be England’s key man, cutting off Croatia’s supply routes into the left channel and launching quick counters for Kieran Trippier.
In terms of the mental side, England’s game management will require improvement. Against Tunisia and Colombia, it took them too long to react to the opposition’s change of approach. Physical tiredness will be less of an issue - Gary Lineker remembers of the 1990 semi-final in Turin that he could barely get out of bed with fatigue on the morning of the game, and yet the adrenalin of the occasion powered him through 120 minutes. But in a game where a bad 10 or 15 minutes can be critical, England’s concentration and sharpness will need to be at its peak.
Who will win? I make England very slight favourites, by an almost meaningless margin. Croatia’s two successful penalty shootouts will give them confidence should extra time not settle things, but should both sides live up to their promise, it could well be an attractive, attacking game. Only one World Cup semi-final has ever finished goalless, the most recent between Holland and Argentina in 2014. This game, by contrast, has the feel of a rollercoaster rather than a slow-burner.
Above all, though, you hope they enjoy themselves. These are the nights, and these are the games, that make everything else worthwhile. Treasure these moments, because it won’t be like this again. Even if England reach another semi-final, a final, more finals, win things, it won’t have that same sensation of exorcism, of emancipation, of craving something your whole life and then giving up hope and then seeing it happen. Truly, these are golden times: for them, for you, for all of us.
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