MOSCOW — England and Croatia set up a World Cup semifinal showdown on Wednesday after England beat Sweden 2-0 and Croatia eliminated Russia on penalties after a crazy 2-2 tie that included two goals in extra time.
The World Cup hosts needed a 115th-minute goal from Mario Fernandes to stay alive, but it couldn't conjure a second straight PK triumph in a row. Croatia, however, could. Fernandes missed everything on his spot kick, tilting the balance Croatia's way, and Ivan Rakitic scored on the clinching kick for a second consecutive match, allowing Croatia to go through on a 4-3 edge. It marks Croatia's second trip to the semifinals–the other came 20 years ago–and is the culmination of another talented side having its golden generation meet its potential after Belgium secured its last-four berth on Friday.
England, Croatia, Belgium and France make up an all-European semifinal, with the latter two kicking off the last four on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg.
But before then, here are my three thoughts on the day:
• This England team has a fresh kind of appeal
England is in the men’s World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1990, but the appeal of this particular England team lies in much more than just the length of its tournament run. This is a refreshing, young team. It's one that has a clear identity, one that has put in the time to build chemistry on and off the field and one that has worked on combination plays that you can see on set pieces and during the run of play. That was the case against Sweden on England’s first goal, yet another set-piece strike off a corner kick, and it was the case on the second goal, which scorer Dele Alli said was a combination with passer Jesse Lingard that they had worked on in practice sessions.
Another aspect of England’s appeal is its likeability. Most of that comes from the players. The captain, Harry Kane, is leading the Golden Boot race with six goals, and his youth, his normal-guy-ness and his ability to handle pressure-packed situations have won him even more fans globally during this World Cup. Across the board, players like Lingard, Raheem Sterling, Kieran Trippier, Ashley Young, John Stones and Jordan Pickford just seem like team-first personalities instead of what we have seen at times in the past from England players at World Cups.
Then there’s the coach, Gareth Southgate, who has pushed so many of the right buttons during the tournament, preparing his to take advantage of set pieces better than any team in the World Cup and defusing situations off the field—the Sterling tattoo story, the leaked lineup story—that would have caused bigger problems in previous World Cups.
England may not be the best team in this World Cup, but it has a real chance to win the World Cup, and that’s a credit to the selfless work of the coach and his players.
• Will England have a significant advantage on rest in the semifinals?
You can be certain that it will be a talking point heading into the semifinal: England played only 90 minutes on Saturday, and it will face a team that has played 120 minutes in each of the last two games. But my sense is that while it will be a talking point, it’s not that big a deal when it comes down to it.
Consider that England also played 120 minutes against Colombia and went to penalties in the round of 16, and having a full three days off between the quarterfinals and semifinals should be enough time for players to recover. The questions for Croatia will surround starting right back Sime Vrsaljko, who was forced off with an injury in extra time, and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, who appeared to tweak his hamstring at the end of regulation before toughing it out through the shootout.
• Luka Modric is strangely underrated
It's crazy to write that about a player so vital to Real Madrid, but it’s true. Modric hasn’t gotten enough credit for his role in his club's three straight Champions League titles, and now he’s not getting enough credit for being the best player of this World Cup (so far).
In a wild victory on penalty kicks against Russia, the fantastic Modric took over the game in the latter stages, and his energy output and surpassing skill were evident at a time when other players were struggling to move. He had some good fortune in the penalty shootout, when Igor Akinfeev got a hand to his kick only to put it off the post and in, but his leadership and control were vital for Croatia to see out the result.
Croatia is now in its second World Cup semifinal in the country’s history, the last time coming in 1998, and it will be fascinating to see how England tries to contain Modric in the midfield. It could well determine which of the two sides advances for a final berth that few saw as a real possibility before the tournament began.
Grant Wahl has covered soccer for 22 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, details the craft of soccer position by position. You can order it here.