England will never get a better chance of reaching the World Cup final. That has been the rhetoric among fans and journalists for over a week now. While Gareth Southgate and his players are determined to remain humble, there is already a certain arrogance creeping into the mind-set of many people around the Three Lions camp. Amid the battle cries of ‘It’s Coming Home’, it seems to have been forgotten that none of Sweden, Russia or Croatia will simply roll over and give England a free pass to the final, where they would face one of Uruguay, France, Brazil or Belgium.
As far as Croatia are concerned, they will also feel that they have an opportunity to reach FIFA’s showpiece event in Moscow on Sunday 15th. Coach Zlatko Dalić will be the first to admit that his side is yet to truly catch fire so far during this tournament, perhaps with the notable exception of their second half performance against Argentina in their second Group D match. On the other hand, it could be that the Vatreni are yet to peak and are indeed saving their best displays for the business end. Their fans will certainly be hoping so – that’s for sure.
Contrary to the gloom and doom that surrounded their pre-tournament preparations, Russia will be similarly optimistic that they can defy the odds and secure a place in the last four. Of course, they head into the game in Sochi as underdogs, which will suit them in many respects. Generally speaking, they are not well-equipped to handle the pressure of being the side expected to take the initiative, so there is little doubt that they will look to keep things tight defensively and hit their Balkan opponents on the counter-attack.
Essentially, boss Stanislav Cherchesov will instruct his players to follow a similar game plan to that which served them so well against Spain in the previous round. Zenit St. Petersburg striker Artem Dzyuba will be crucial to their hopes of causing an upset, given his ability to hold the ball up and allow his teammates to push forward in support of him as the team’s lone frontman. Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida will know they have been in a game once Dzyuba is finished with them – there is no doubt about that.
Aleksandr Golovin is another player who is more than capable of creating problems for Croatia’s defence, though for very different reasons compared to Dzyuba. Indeed, the CSKA Moscow playmaker is being targeted by the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Juventus having impressed scouts from across Europe in his trequartista role. He is expected to start tomorrow night against Dalić’s team, so the former Al-Ain trainer will undoubtedly be plotting a way in which to contain his superb technical ability.
So far, quick rotations in midfield as well as swift movement on the break have defined Russia’s performances, especially against Saudi Arabia and Egypt in their opening two matches. Naturally, they were somewhat restricted in an attacking sense versus Uruguay and Spain. That said, soaking up pressure against a Croatia side so adept at creating goalscoring chances will be a risk. Cherchesov’s players cannot afford to simply stand off and put no pressure on the ball. If they allow the likes of Luka Modrić too much time and space, there is a good chance they will suffer a long, slow death by football.
Yuri Zhirkov was forced off at half-time with an injury last time out and is a major doubt for tomorrow night’s quarter-final. Therefore, Fyodor Kudryashov could be called upon at left-back instead. Meanwhile, Ivan Strinić is a doubt for Croatia after sustaining an injury against Denmark in their last 16 encounter. Should he not be passed fit, Dynamo Kyiv’s Josip Pivarić will take his place on the left-hand side of the Vatreni’s defence.
Here are the predicted line-ups for tomorrow night’s crunch encounter in Sochi:
Russia (4-2-3-1): Igor Akinfeev; Mário Fernandes, Ilya Kutepov, Sergei Ignashevich, Fyodor Kudryashov; Yury Gazinsky, Roman Zobnin; Aleksandr Samedov, Aleksandr Golovin, Denis Cheryshev; Artem Dzyuba.
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Danijel Subašić; Šime Vrsaljko, Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Strinić; Ivan Rakitić, Marcelo Brozović; Ante Rebić, Luka Modrić, Ivan Perišić; Mario Mandžukić.
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