Can Croatia stop football from rocketing home?

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A composed if uninspired performance in Samara has sent England to their first FIFA World Cup semi-final since 1990, while in Sochi Croatia edged hosts Russia on penalties. Can the Croatians stop England in the second semi-final, or does a date with France or Belgium await the Three Lions?

It is fitting that Samara, once home to the Soviet Union’s space efforts, saw the English national team continue their ascent into orbit.

On Saturday (local time), the Three Lions did what was required to depart with a 2-0 victory over Sweden.

They did not do much more – it was a largely dull 90 minutes, England’s attacking talent once again struggling to shine – but enough to stay alive at the tournament.

Helped along by yet another set-piece goal, Gareth Southgate secured his nation’s third ever World Cup semi-final appearance.

Football: England vs Sweden at World Cup
Dele Alli (20) of England scores his team's second goal against Sweden

It feels, both here and in England, that momentum is building.

‘Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)’, that iconic 1996 anthem by The Lightning Seeds, is being played on repeat.

Premature talk has surfaced of a public holiday should England win; a suggestion endorsed by Britain’s opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The ‘it’s coming home’ memes littering the internet are partly in jest.

It would take a brave English fan to bet on their team bettering Belgium or France, both of whom have looked far more dangerous than Southgate’s side, in a potential July 15 final meeting.

But the cacophony contains a kernel of self-belief among supporters.

Following tournament after tournament of false hope and quashed dreams, their national team is in the semi-final and the English are daring to wonder.

Standing in the way of England and a feat that has eluded them since 1966 is Croatia, after they downed Russia in Sochi in the late evening kick-off.

Not unlike England, Croatia have looked less than the sum of their parts during the World Cup.

But, like England, they have managed to keep winning regardless.

For the second consecutive match, Croatia were forced to penalties – a Mario Fernandes header deep in extra-time giving Russia an unlikely reprieve.

But Fernandes’ heroics were soon forgotten when he blazed wide during the shoot-out. An icily calm Ivan Rakitic sealed the victory.

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Each team’s opposition scouts will have plenty to contemplate in the coming days.

England were again blunt in attack, a star-studded forward line struggling to ignite.

The oft-criticised Raheem Sterling remains essential to the side’s attacking movement, but has been unable to convert opportunities.

England’s opener on Saturday came from a set-piece: their eighth goal from a dead ball situation, of 11 in total.

While goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was again excellent – a worthy candidate for the golden glove – an opponent more adept than Sweden will have every opportunity to trouble England.

For Croatia, meanwhile, the midfield composition poses the major riddle.

Against Russia, coach Zlatko Dalic opted to bench defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic for a more attacking option in Andrej Kramaric.

Kramaric scored, but Dalic’s structure restrained Rakitic and Croatian captain Luka Modric to operate predominantly in the centre of the pitch.

Brozovic was brought on in the second half, permitting the La Liga midfield duo to roam further forward.

The change worked wonders, with Modric particularly dominant in latter stages against Russia.

Luca Modric
Getty Images

A similar dilemma troubled Dalic during his side’s round of 16 encounter with Denmark: even with Brozovic starting on the occasion, Modric seemed shackled to the midfield.

He may play in a similar role for Real Madrid, but Croatia hum when Modric is deployed in a more advanced position.

Mario Mandzukic’s lack of goals this World Cup is also a surprise.

Despite netting five times during qualification, the Juventus star has scored just once this tournament.

England have conceded only four times in five matches, and Mandzukic’s seemingly lack of potency could inhibit Croatian efforts to add to that number.

Fitness will be another concern for both teams.

England showed signs of fatigue – just four days after their emotional penalty shoot-out victory over Colombia.

For Croatia, their 240 minutes of football since Monday has taken a toll.

If the Moscow clash goes to extra-time, their weary legs could be play a part in their downfall.

Tiredness notwithstanding, after their victory in Samara England is in near-earth orbit.

A win against Croatia on Wednesday (4am AEST Thursday) – ensuring the team’s second World Cup final in almost 70 years – would send the Three Lions beyond the stratosphere.