England and Croatia have met on the football pitch a few times in the past, but never at the FIFA World Cup.
Records show that the difference between the two teams has at best been marginal in previous encounters, either in qualifiers for the Euro Championships, qualifiers for the World Cup or international friendlies.
But when the team from the Balkans file out against the Three Lions of England in what has been described as a titanic clash at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday, all that would matter is who has the bragging rights to a ticket for the finals of a competition that started with 32 of the world’s biggest footballing nations in June.
Neither of the teams was expected to be still standing after almost four weeks of competition considering their status as rank outsiders.
But having worked their ways through a tight labyrinth of opposition, both teams have now overnight become favourites to land football’s most sought-after prize come July 15, 2018.
Croatia could never have foreseen the fortuitous manner in which their campaign at Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup turned out, winning all three games in a group that paraded such crack sides as Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria in Group D and grabbing a maximum nine points to top the group, with seven goals, and just one against
And their fairy-tale would continue as they cruised into the knockout stages, maintaining their hundred per cent run with further victories against Denmark via penalties in the round of 16, and against hosts, Russia in another suspense-filled shootout win in the quarter-final.
Now, they are just one step away from going one above the record set by their Davor Suker- led squad of the France’98 World Cup. Can the Croatians reach a new high exactly 20 years since their last? That is the question they must seek to answer on Wednesday night.
Zlatko Dalic’s men, however, know they must overcome England to fulfil their dreams of making it to the final of the World Cup. The English who have not won the World Cup since 1966 when they hosted it, and who have finally exorcised the ghosts of their age-long penalty woes after their recent shoot-out win over Colombia, are beginning to fancy their chances of finally wresting the title again after their last win in the Jules Rimet era.
This, for the English, is their biggest motivation as they face the Croatians. England has proven to be worthy opponents if their performance at the tournament so far is anything to go by. Apart from their only loss to Belgium in their third group G game, Gareth Southgate’s men have exhibited a form that makes them a threat to any opponent.
Apart from scoring eleven goals in four games involving Panama, Tunisia, Colombia and Sweden (they scored none in their loss to Belgium) in open play, bar the shootout, the English also have in their arsenal a certain Harry Kane who is the tournament’s leading scorer with six goals.
The Tottenham Hotspurs hitman also entered the record books by equalling a 28-year record held by Gary Lineker who was the last man to score six goals for England in a single World Cup at Italia’90.
Both teams never met at any World Cup tournament, but of the five times they have met, England has picked victories on three occasions while the Croats have only come away with two.
But, as has been observed, these statistics seldom count especially when the stakes are really high.
Croatia seeks to climax a run that has earned them plaudits globally by beating England to reach their first World Cup final, while England targets a win of football’s biggest prize for the second time in history. Every English football fan believes, ” football is finally coming home”.
These are certainly motivators for an explosive encounter on the Luzhniki stadium on Wednesday.
The Croatians are not lacking in match-winners when it is considered they are loaded to the hilt with experienced finishers in the mould of Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric etc If these players don’t do it for Croatia on this occasion, then no one would. And they are the players England must be wary of if their dream of reaching the finals of the Russia2018 World Cup will not dissolve into nothingness.
On current form, there is not much to choose between these two, but an uncanny touch of individual brilliance, a brain-wave from an astute bench, mental alertness, a favourable referee decision( or lack of it), precise finishing or even luck are all potential determinants of the eventual outcome of this match. As they always say, may the better side win.