It’s best to start with a frank admission – full disclosure if you will – that this reviewer is Irish. And also has money on Croatia to win outright. And is hungover. The first point is probably the most pertinent, although the latter is certain to play a laboured part, too. Anyone with a passing knowledge of European history will know that Ireland and England have something of a tangled history. Most of that has, thankfully, been put to bed and relations are generally warm between the two – long may that continue.
There is, however, a lingering feeling, on the part of this column at the very least, that might be considered less than charitable, flavoured with a definite dash of schadenfreude when it relates to the England national team. Although the vast majority of football fans in Ireland support English teams to a far greater extent than they do their local Irish team, there’s just something within us that finds the notion of wishing England well a near impossible thing to do. Sure, there’s the historical baggage to take into account but it’s probably got more to do with the savage, blood-hungry turned triumphalist, Oh England! media than anything else. That and the knowledge that, should they win this World Cup, we will never, ever, hear the end of it.
And if they do, what’s wrong with that? If it were Ireland, you can be bloody sure that we’d be shouting it loud and proud from any and all available rooftops until tourism numbers started to dry up and we remembered which side our bread is buttered on. And because we’re Ireland, that last sentence is obviously hypothetical in the extreme so why begrudge our closest neighbours the thoughts of a glory that will forever be out of our reach? We shouldn’t. We’re far too mature for that, said someone we heard on the radio.
For what it’s worth, this column has been more than happy to see England get this far. After two mind-numbing, brain-melting years since Brexit crash landed, the tale from ‘across the water’ has been one of national fissure and ill-will so the fact that the unexpected success of their national team this summer has brought a joy and hope which reaches across the divide with hands so healing is a cause for celebration. But, and this is where we might be dipping our toe in troubled waters, the semi-final is far enough.
Now, that might be the receding drink talking or it could be our money on Croatia talking or it might just be plain mean-spiritedness on our part but please, for the love of whatever you’re having yourself, please don’t let them beat Croatia! There are so many aspects of England that this column adores (certainly far more than Croatia), e.g. most of our favourite bands are English and the same with authors, most English people we’ve ever met have been genuinely lovely and interesting people, large parts of the country are breathtakingly beautiful etcetera but, and this is entirely on us, the thought of them winning the World Cup fills this aging fool with a dread that is just too much to bear.
That is probably enough candour on our part for the moment but you clearly see where our muddled, pathetic thinking lies. To sum it up, were England to bow out in glorious fashion tonight, we’d raise a glass to them and be utterly genuine in our expressions of good will but if they were to progress to the final and, say, win it… Well, it’s the thought of our own impending “thirty years of hurt” which would leave us screaming.
An England win is as strong a possibility as it is a scary thought, and at odds-against, the Three Lions represent a decent bet.
Can Harry Kane Make the Difference?
Fumbling around and finding our hat marked ‘objective’, we do find this a difficult match to call. In Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Croatia can lay claim to what Xavi has recently referred to as “monsters of the ball”. The trouble with this is that the latter of the pair, Rakitic, hasn’t really been at the races in this tournament. Yes, he applied the final twist of the knife in their victory over Argentina but he hasn’t been the influence in the middle of the park that recent years with Barcelona and Sevilla have conditioned us to expect. Modric, however, has arguably been the standout midfielder of the summer and if the team of the tournament doesn’t include both him and N’Golo Kante in the middle of the park, the powers that be will have got it criminally wrong.
It’s fair to say that England don’t have close to those skills in that area of the park. It’s also not stretching credulity to say that they have largely avoided playing any decent teams. Yes, they played Belgium but both teams made wholesale changes for that game and Colombia are certainly no mugs but to say they were more interested in fighting than football is only to confirm what our eyes saw. None of this is to say that England don’t deserve to be in the semi-final – they clearly do – but it’s an accurate assessment which says that Croatia come into this tie the more battle-hardened of the two.
It’s also correct to point out that Croatia might be significantly more fatigued than England following two matches that were played out in the fullness of extra-time; certainly, a number of their players were struggling to stand let alone run toward the end of their quarter-final win over Russia. If there is one thing that England do not lack it is fitness and at this late stage of the competition, that is gold.
An aspect of their game that has been much remarked upon is their efficiency at set-pieces. The vast majority of their goals have come from corners and penalties and it’s an area they have clearly worked hard on. This has been used as a stick to beat them with in some quarters; their paucity of goals from open play might ordinarily be a concern but so long as they continue to be devastatingly effective from dead ball situations, what harm? They are a team built with both their strengths and weaknesses in mind and they maximized the former whilst doing their best to negate the latter.
It will be interesting to see how Jordan Henderson does in midfield when put up against Modric but he’s held his own in an impressively understated way so far and must be confident of continuing in the same vein. He also has the experience of training with Dejan Lovren day in, day out at Liverpool and will be able to impart any and all knowledge in this regard to his teammates. One suspects that both Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling will be licking their lips at the thought of charging down the oft-times hapless defender’s channel.
Regular readers will be aware of this column’s tendency to disagree with bookmakers and consequently be wrong more often than not. In this case, we are of the opinion that Croatia are the better of the two teams and, on paper, really should win; their clinical destruction of a ragged Argentina side is always on our mind. However, somewhat less objectively, everything appears to be running in the right direction for England. Whether this is down to form or fortune or both hardly seems important as they seem to be drifting according to “the whims of the Great Magnet” – maybe football really is going ‘home’. Whether it does or not, the market certainly thinks that they’re taking the semi-final win home and if they do, there is every chance that Harry Kane will be the man to score the goals that get them to the final.