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England and Croatia to slug it out for chance to face France
England and Croatia battle on Wednesday night in Moscow for the right to play France in Sunday’s World Cup final.
Croatia have never graced a final while England’s last visit came in 1966 when they beat West Germany 4-2.
"We can feel the energy and the support from home and it's a very special feeling and a privilege for us," said England manager Gareth Southgate.
"We're going into a semi-final but it just seems like it's the next step on the journey," he added.
"This team is nowhere near the level they're going to be capable of, partly because of their age and partly because over the next few years, with us and with their clubs, they're going to have more and more experiences of big matches.
"So we're excited about the future but we also want to make the most of the opportunity we have."
While attention is on the tournament’s leading scorer, Harry Kane, the Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has pinpointed Raheem Sterling as England’s attacking lynchpin. Kane has scored six goals since arriving in Russia whereas Sterling has not netted for England since October 2015.
“I’m not surprised Croatia have identified Raheem as a key player,” said Southgate. “I think if you look at our attacking patterns and the way that our front four combine and play, he has been instrumental in that. He is a player that is really appreciated by the team. We are really pleased with his contribution and his work ethic.”
Southgate’s men will have their work cut out too. Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic pull the strings in midfield while Juventus’s Mario Mandzukic injects muscle and guile into the forward line.
“They are an obvious threat from crosses,” said Southgate. “And we know the ability of the midfielders to pick passes out and to score from distance if we allow them to shoot. So we’re very clear on the strengths of the Croatia team.”
Zlatko Dalic’s men announced their candidacy for the trophy with a 3-0 destruction of Argentina in the second Group D match on 21 June in Nizhny Novgorod. They went on to claim the group. But in their last 16 and quarter-final matches, they were taken to extra-time and penalties by Denmark and Russia respectively.
"I am perfectly ready and fit and I can say the same for my teammates,” said Croatia defender Dejan Lovren. “We know what it takes and in such moments you forget any fatigue you may feel. This is maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It may repeat itself once, maybe never."
Dalic says the desire to eclipse the 1998 side that reached the semi-final was spurring his players.
"We shouldn't be surprised that Croatia are in the last four at a World Cup, given the quality of players," he said. "This generation has been underrated for a long time but they have shown their qualities when it matters and they will go down in history as a great generation.
"We have come back after 20 years to the semis and we deserve it."