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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Free Modric, shackle Sterling and limit Trippier: How Croatia can beat England in the World Cup semi-final

John McAuley looks at three key areas where Zlatko Dalic's side will need to excel if they are to reach the final

Luka Modric, centre, is Croatia's captain, chief creator and best player. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images
Luka Modric, centre, is Croatia's captain, chief creator and best player. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

Start Brozovic, free Modric

It’s hardly the worst problem to have: how to extract the best from arguably the best midfielder in the tournament. However, in the quarter-final against Russia on Saturday, Zlatko Dalic opted for an extra man in attack – Andrej Kramaric, who did reward his selection with a goal – and so Luka Modric was stationed deeper.

Initially, the Croatia captain struggled alongside Ivan Rakitic, his penetration nullified, his side deprived of a specialist destroyer in the centre of the park. Given freedom through the middle, the Russians ran riot.

Eventually, Dalic made the change, bringing on Marcelo Brozovic just after the hour. From there, Modric was masterful, driving his team forward, dragging the Russians out of shape and generally setting the match tempo.

He will need to be similarly instrumental against England. Therefore, Dalic will need to drop one of his more attack-minded players – Mario Mandzukic will most likely lead the line – and allow Modric to make hay.

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Get Perisic to pin back Trippier

Ivan Perisic will be tasked with offering an attacking threat and limiting England right-back Kieron Trippier. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images
Ivan Perisic will be tasked with offering an attacking threat and limiting England right-back Kieron Trippier. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

Trawl the pre-tournament predictions and they would not have been obvious picks as England’s standouts. But Harry Maguire has been excellent in Russia, rewarded with the opener against Sweden on Saturday, and so too Kieran Trippier.

While Maguire has brought ballast to the defence and a genuine threat at set-pieces, Trippier has typically performed as the supplier. The Tottenham Hotspur full-back provides England’s width on the right, and his precision crossing a direct route to goal.

Much, then, will fall upon Ivan Perisic to keep Trippier in check. The Inter Milan winger is vital to Croatia’s attack, a pacey wideman who allies an ability to create with an eye for goal.

However, his focus on galloping forward can leave left-back – and Croatia’s resident scapegoat – Ivan Strinic worryingly exposed. So Perisic has a dual role: occupy Trippier, limiting his forays deep into Croatian territory, and offer cover for the much-maligned Strinic. Admittedly, it is a difficult balance to strike.

Shackle Marmite Sterling

Raheem Sterling may divide opinion but he is a key attacking threat Croatia must handle. Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA
Raheem Sterling may divide opinion but he is a key attacking threat Croatia must handle. Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA

As captain and goal guarantor, Harry Kane represents England’s main man. He has justified his billing in Russia, too, leading the scoring charts with six goals, even if the majority has arrived from the penalty spot (and one via a very fortunate deflection).

But Kane gives more than goals: his presence up top opens space for Raheem Sterling in particular. The Manchester City forward regularly divides opinion, but he will test a Croatia defence hardly boasting searing pace.

He can distract and disrupt Dejan Lovren, a former club colleague who has generally played well, and Domagoj Vida also. Vedran Corluka, meanwhile, could struggle against the fleet-footed Sterling, should he come in for Sime Vrsaljko.

On Saturday, Sterling showcased why he frustrates: he sprung beyond Sweden’s backline, but his final product let him down. He last scored for England in October 2015.

Yet Croatia must be careful. No doubt, Sterling has the skillset to win the individual battles; Croatia's collective must curb his enthusiasm.