MOSCOW (Reuters) - Croatia meet England in a World Cup semi-final on Wednesday in Moscow. Here is a look at some of the key head-to-head duels which could prove decisive.
Luka Modric v Jordan Henderson
Modric is Croatia’s creative fulcrum and the effectiveness of the Real Madrid playmaker in Moscow will be integral to his nation’s hopes of reaching the World Cup final for the first time.
Operating in tandem with Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, Modric will be out to dominate central midfield and build a platform to allow him to link with his forwards, or embark on a foray or two of his own into the box.
Henderson, if again selected as England’s sole holding midfielder, will need to be at his disruptive best to prevent the Croatians developing a stranglehold in the middle of the pitch, while also watching out for those surging runs forward.
Harry Kane v Dejan Lovren
Kane scored three goals for Tottenham Hotspur against Lovren’s Liverpool last season, two in a 4-1 victory when a series of errors by the hapless Croatian defender saw him replaced after 31 minutes.
Lovren has been a defensive rock for Croatia at this tournament, however, and with his partner Domagoj Vida will be confident of shackling Kane and preventing him from adding to his tally of six goals at the tournament.
The England captain, who has not scored from open play since England’s rout of Panama in their second group match, does not have the lightning speed that would expose the lack of pace in the Croatian central defence.
However, Kane’s partner in attack, Raheem Sterling, has pace to burn and England’s totem will be on hand to benefit if that causes problems for the Croatians.
Mario Mandzukic v John Stones
Juventus striker Mandzukic is Croatia’s main goal threat and although he has only scored once in Russia, his game is about a lot more than just finding the net.
Strong, mobile, indefatigable and good in the air, Mandzukic looks to make life as difficult as possible for the defence, stretching play to allow the likes of Modric the space they need to get into the danger zone around the box.
Stones, and his defensive partners Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker, will need to be on their toes for the whole game against Croatia’s lone striker, particularly when the ball flies into the area from a set piece.
Danijel Subasic v England penalty takers
While the set piece has been England’s most decisive weapon on their run to the semi-finals, and they won a penalty shootout to beat Colombia, Croatia will feel they have the edge if the match remains deadlocked after extra time.
Monaco goalkeeper Subasic saved three penalties in Croatia’s shootout win over Denmark in the round of 16, and another in the quarter-finals as the Vatreni dramatically ousted hosts Russia on penalties.
The big Croatian looks likely to shake off the hamstring injury that hampered him against the Russians and would be an imposing figure between the sticks for England’s penalty takers if a place in the final came down to spot-kicks.
Editing by Christian Radnedge