Croatia v England in World Cup semi-final: Will experience trump youth?

Published on: 10 July 2018

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World Cup Catch-up: England marching on, football coming home Croatia v England

Date: Wednesday, 11 July (19:00 BST). Venue: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.

Coverage: Listen live on BBC Radio 5 live, with live text commentary online.

Forget the tournament favourites. One of England or Croatia will compete in the World Cup final on Sunday.

Their semi-final has been billed as the latest step in an unusually attractive route through the knockout stages for the Three Lions, but Croatia are a side packed with extensive experience, while Gareth Southgate's squad is the second youngest in Russia.

Thirteen of the Croatian players are appearing at their second successive World Cup, while 18 of England's 23-man party are at the tournament for the first time. Only two of the five to have experienced this stage before - Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson - have been regular starters.

We take a look at the stark contrast between experienced Croatia and a new-look England.

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Age and experience

If Southgate names an unchanged starting line-up on Wednesday, it will contain only three players who were born when England lost their last World Cup semi-final, against West Germany 28 years ago.

Ashley Young was four years old, while Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson were babies when the late Bobby Robson's side suffered penalty heartbreak in Turin.

"It is scary to think that 17 of the 2018 squad were not born when that match was played," said former England captain Alan Shearer.

In contrast, eight of Croatia's side that started Saturday's quarter-final win over Russia are aged 28 or over - including their formidable midfield trio of Luka Modric, 32, Ivan Rakitic, 30, and Ivan Perisic, 29, as well as forward Mario Mandzukic, 32.

Indeed, the average age of the Croatia side that beat the hosts was 29.1, with five players - including goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and defender Ivan Strinic - aged 30 or over.

England's squad includes just three players aged over 30 - Young, Jamie Vardy and Gary Cahill.

Young, 33, has clocked up 372 minutes of action in Russia, but England boss Southgate has used Vardy and Cahill sparingly.

Cahill, 32, has managed just 90 minutes at this tournament, with Vardy, 31, used for 119 minutes.

Croatia have relied heavily on their experienced players, not least Modric, who has started every game - even the final group match against Iceland when his side had already qualified.

For a player whose World Cup experience goes all the way back to the 2006 World Cup, could another 90 (or 120) minutes be a stretch too far?

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Tournament know-how

As more than half of this Croatia squad competed at the last World Cup in Brazil four years ago, Jordan Pickford had not long finished a loan spell at non-league Alfreton Town, while Harry Maguire and Dele Alli were playing in League One. It was another 12 months before the latter earned a career-changing move to Tottenham.

In fact, nine of England's starting side in Saturday's 2-0 quarter-final win over Sweden are appearing at their first finals, including Young, the oldest member of Southgate's squad, which goes to show how little tournament know-how England have.

"This squad has got energy and youth," added Shearer before the start of the tournament. "There seems a genuine excitement and happiness to be involved."

It is a very different picture for Croatia.

Modric, at his third World Cup, has combined with Rakitic, Mandzukic and Perisic to form the core of this team over the past decade.

That quartet have amassed 366 caps between them. That is 32 more than the combined total of the 12 players listed as midfielders and forwards in England's squad.

That winning feeling

One team on Wednesday will feature three players who have won the Champions League six times between them. The other will feature six League Cup winners.

While Modric is a four-time European champion with Real, Rakitic won it with Barcelona in 2015 and Mandzukic celebrated the prize with Bayern Munich in 2013.

The only Champions League winner in England's squad is Cahill, who is once again likely to start on the bench.

And Croatia's team is sprinkled with players who have won titles across Europe's top leagues. As the graphic below shows, their players have won league titles in seven countries, England's players only in their homeland.

Subasic won Ligue 1 with Monaco in 2017, while forward Andrej Kramaric was on Leicester City's books when they won the Premier League in 2016 - although he only made two top-flight substitute appearances that season.

Mandzukic won back-to-back Bundesliga titles before leaving Bayern Munich in 2014, going on to win three straight Serie A titles with Juventus.

Perisic also won the Bundesliga in 2012 with Borussia Dortmund, while Modric helped Real Madrid win La Liga in 2017.

England are likely to have four Premier League winners in their side when they take to the field - Walker, John Stones, Raheem Sterling and Young.

Unlike the well-travelled Croatians, none of their squad has ever won a league title outside of England.

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Goals, goals, goals

While Harry Kane is leading scorer at this tournament with six goals, Mandzukic has consistently delivered in front of goal for Croatia.

Having made his senior international debut in 2007, the Juventus forward has 31 goals in 87 games for his country and is second on Croatia's list of all-time top scorers behind Davor Suker.

Croatia's established midfield is all full of goals - Perisic, Rakitic and Modric have 48 between them. In contrast, Henderson is waiting for his first England strike after 43 appearances, while Sterling has not scored for England since October 2015.

Against Sweden, Alli became the second-youngest player to score for England at the World Cup (22 years and 87 days), behind only Michael Owen (18 years and 190 days).

In doing so he became the fifth different England scorer in Russia after Kane, Stones, Jesse Lingard and Maguire.

Croatia's 10 goals have been spread right across the team. Eight different players have scored for them in the past five games - Modric, Ante Rebic, Rakitic, Milan Badelj, Perisic, Mandzukic, Kramaric and Domagoj Vida - and they have also benefited from an own goal.

While England failed to score against Belgium in their final group game, Croatia have found the net in each of their past nine World Cup matches - a run stretching back to 2006.

However, England still have one more goal than Croatia at this tournament.

Will that still be the case after Wednesday?

"We know that free-kicks and corners are the big things Croatia will be worried about on Wednesday, but I don't look at them and see anything to be afraid of," said Shearer.

"Of course they have got some technically gifted players - like Modric and Rakitic, who have been superb in this tournament - but they looked dead on their feet during extra time in their quarter-final against Russia.

"We have to respect them because of the quality they have got, but we should not fear them and I don't think the England players will either."