Can England finally end 52 years of World Cup hurt? Is football really coming home? We look at the strengths and weaknesses of the four teams left chasing glory in Russia.
Why they’ll win it: A vast array of attacking talent and plenty of options on the bench. A defence that, a mad clash with Argentina aside, has been rock-solid in front of Hugo Lloris, one of the most quietly effective keepers of a tournament that hasn’t always gone to plan for the glovemen.
Why they won’t: There remains a sense that this spectacularly talented side remains somehow less than the sum of its parts, with questions still lingering over whether Didier Deschamps can extract the very best from the ample tools at his disposal. The Argentina game was an exception, but France have been efficient rather than inspirational in Russia.
Why they’ll win it: A hungry young squad free of the scars of the past have hit upon a formula for success. In a tournament where set-pieces have proved crucial, no team has exploited them better than Gareth Southgate’s supremely well-drilled outfit. Pre-tournament doubts over the likes of Pickford, Trippier and Maguire all look ludicrous now with all three looking good bets for the FIFA team of the tournament. Everyone is playing their part, and they are led by the world’s best striker.
Why they won’t: Five of England’s starting XI have never won a single trophy. The youthful exuberance that has got them this far could yet turn out to be inexperience when it comes to clearing the last couple of hurdles. The three-man defence has been impressive but has so far got away with errors that the remaining sides might punish. Three goals from open play in five games is a worry if the corner/penalty Plan A fails.
Why they’ll win it: First XI matches France for sheer talent and has England and Croatia well beaten. Confidence must be sky high after a thoroughly deserved victory over favourites Brazil in the quarter-final, where the tactical masterstroke of deploying Romelu Lukaku in a withdrawn role proved inspired. Given how poor Argentina have been at this tournament, Belgium are the only side who can really say they’ve shown they can beat the very best over the last three weeks. For everyone else, things are about to get far tougher. Belgium have already been there and done it.
Why they won’t: The loss of concentration at the start of the second half against Japan was worrying and almost fatally costly for Belgium. The Red Devils have never ever been beyond the last four at a World Cup. The pressure on a semi-final against France, given the fact Belgium would be clear favourites against either Croatia or England in the final, is something they must handle. Lack France’s – and arguably England’s – bench strength.
Why they’ll win it: Luka Modric has been the best player in Russia and knows all about winning these big knockout games after Real Madrid’s recent domination of the Champions League. With Ivan Rakitic alongside him, the Madrid-Barcelona axis forms a midfield that nobody else left in the competition can match. The 3-0 victory over Argentina in the group stage remains the single most complete, most effective team performance of the event so far.
Why they won’t: Fatigue. Croatia have been taken all the way to penalties in both knockout games against teams they would have expected to beat with a bit more to spare. Outplayed by Denmark and almost outlasted by Russia, Croatia will need a second wind to stay with a lively England side on Wednesday night. Have conceded more goals from set-pieces than any other side – which makes England perhaps their worst possible opponent at this stage.
- All odds from bet365 and correct at time of publication.
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