A couple of days past but it would be remiss of yours truly to not comment on the final two World Cup quarter finals held last weekend. England cruised through to the last four while Croatia again huffed and puffed before dispatching the gallant Russians on yet another penalty shootout. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.
Is it really coming home?
There is plenty of work for England to do before it is coming home. We heard that Sweden were a superior outfit to any other team that they have faced in this tournament but Sweden saved their worse performance of the tournament for this quarter final fixture. They were listless (perhaps the early fire alarm wake up call had an effect) and struggled defensively to cope with the pace of Sterling, the goal poaching threat of Kane and the crossing and set piece delivery out wide.
Harry Maguire has steady improved as the tournament has progressed. He will probably be the first to admit that he was a nervous wreck against Tunisia but he has settled into the back three of the England defense so much so that he is now posing an attacking threat for England. An emphatic header from yet another clinically executed England set piece to open the scoring. Sweden were behind the eight ball and their blunt attacking threat was exposed and raised questions how they advanced to this stage of the competition.
Jordan Pickford has enhanced his reputation from this tourney. His saves during the Colombia game have pushed his game to another level. His confidence is soaring so much so that his distribution from the back is now including excellent sweeping passes to midfield players out wide (seen against Sweden). Pickford was called upon to save his side when Sweden did try to threaten but a clean sheet in the quarter final can only bring good vibes for both the keeper and defensive unit who by and large dominated exchanges.
The England midfield continues to grow as well like the rest of the side. Henderson was on point with his defensive duties and ability to pinpoint England attacking runs with quality passes in behind the Swedish defense noteworthy. Henderson has emerged as a doubt for the semi-final; his presence will be required given the threat of Croatia’s midfield with the likes of Modric, Rakitic, Rebic, Perisic. Is Southgate tempted to change the formation to deploy Dier to support Henderson in the middle of the park?
England have to be praised for getting to this stage of the tournament. The draw has opened up for them and they have taken full advantage. Precious few gave England a chance of getting out of the second round. You sense that the Colombia triumph for this group of players was the turning point; their ability to win given the arduous circumstances have unleashed the pressure and shackles from the side.
Their triumph against Sweden showed composure to close out the game in an efficient manner. Sweden were nullified; their defensive shape was compromised due to England’s pacy attack. Lingard continues to grow into this tournament and with quality delivery from Young and Trippier, Croatia will need to be on point defensively to advance to the final. England are underdogs; they will revel with this tag.
Croatia win but questions raised
I love Croatia and how they complement their physicality with an elegant passing game. The sight of Luka Modric orchestrating the tempo during games is a joy to watch; saw him first hand demolishing Republic of Ireland in Poznan. Modric has being an absolute star of this tournament but his colleagues around him need to up their game.
2-2 against a limited Russian outfit is another reminder to Croatia of vulnerabilities. Their ability to fightback from yet another opening half was admirable but their sheer inability to go on and win contests during regular and extra time is baffling. Chances were created but were spurned. Croatia have just about held their nerve in penalties but this adds to the mental toll ahead of such a key fixture.
Croatia’s midfield is the jewel in the crown of their impending fixture against England. If Croatia can provide a platform for Modric to control tempo to create chances for Rebic and Mandzukic then England will be under the cosh and facing World Cup elimination. However, their inability to defend the set piece is a concern in recent games. Denmark and Russia profited from set piece goals and England will not have to be asked twice to punish the Eastern Europeans.
Croatia are favorites to progress but they are making life exceedingly difficult for themselves leading into this semi-final fixture. The toll of playing two matches (120 minutes) plus the pressure of executing in a penalty shootout could take its toll and I am starting to wonder if Croatia defensively have not faced the genuine pace possessed by the England attacking options. Dele, Lingard and Sterling have the talent and pace to cause issues for Croatia defensively but whether they get the possession to do this is another factor entirely.
Russia exit the competition. They have not disgraced themselves in this tournament. Their loss to Uruguay could have signaled the collapse but Russia dug in against Spain and upset the odds. Their late equalizer from Fernandes was a result of perseverance and hard work. Their ability to take the punches during the contest saw Croatia get increasingly nervous leading to the equalizer. Denis Cheryshev was outstanding for the hosts; his opening strike a contender for goal of the tournament. Their conditioning and fitness was immense; a key factor why they advanced to the last eight. How much did Russia take out of Croatia? All to be revealed on Wednesday night.