Five things England learned about World Cup 2018 semi-final opponents Croatia, including Ante Rebic danger

England will face Croatia in the semi-final of the World Cup after they beat hosts Russia 4-3 in a penalty shootout.

Croatia thought they had done enough when Domagoj Vida bundled the ball into the back of the net in extra time, but Mario Fernandes scored with five minutes to go to force a penalty shootout.

Ivan Rakitic scored the winning penalty after Mario Fernandes and Fedor Smolov failed to convert from the spot.

Against the run of play, Denis Cheryshev opened the scoring half for Russia an hour into the game with a wonderful curling effort from range which took Danijel Subasic by surprise as it flew past him.

Croatia finally had their reward for their early dominance as Andrej Kramaric headed in Mario Mandzukic’s cross to complete a swift counter-attack.

England to play Croatia in World Cup semi-final

Ivan Perisic came so close to putting Croatia into the lead but hit the post and watched the ball agonisingly across the line and wide.

On the balance of play Croatia were deserved winners and thought they had sealed their place in the final four when Vida’s header from a corner in extra time.

With five minutes of extra time to go, Alan Dzagoev’s cross was headed in by Brazilian born Fernandes who rose highest and took the tie to penalties.

Here’s five things England learned in Sochi

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croatia-goal.jpg

Domagoj Vida celebrates scoring in extra-time (Getty )

1. Three Lions need fast start

In the opening exchanges against Sweden England looked tired, which is hardly surprising given the gruelling penalty shootout win against Colombia and travelling to get them there.

England now have the upper hand with Russia and Croatia playing an extra 30 minutes later on in the day. Croatia goalkeeper Subasic required serious attention from physios before extra time for cramp in his hamstring and could be an injury doubt for the semi-final clash.

A fast start is essential against Croatia and England have the capacity to score a few early goals and take a step into the final by blowing their opponents away in the first half.

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2. Rebic an unlikely threat

Croatia have so many individual players which you would want to devote specific attention to, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic. Man mark them and they will drag a defence around with their movement. What this means is that Ante Rebic was escaping specific Russian attention and he became one of the most influencial players on the pitch.

His hold up play was remarkably good and he was using his surprisingly good strength to draw in defenders and lay the ball to his teammates in space. England will have to be aware of his movement and his ability to keep things ticking over in the final third in a way which often goes under the radar because he is not as eye-catching or noteworthy as Modric and Rakitc

Ante Rebic
Ante Rebic

England will have to pay attention to Rebic (Getty)

3. Kyle Walker could be targeted

England are yet to be seriously tested at the back. Tunisia, Panama and Sweden posed very little threat in attack and England’s back three have had a fairly comfortable tournament so far.

Against Croatia, there is a danger that Mandzukic will try and expose Kyle Walker as the weak link in the back line. Trippier has been one of England’s best attacking players and been hugely influential in the final third but has rarely been seen near his own box. Mandzukic could expose England’s right side of defence by occupying the left channel, a position he takes up for his club side Juventus.

4. Set pieces will be more important than ever

Harry Maguire’s goal against Sweden was England’s 11th of the tournament and eighth from a set piece. The Leicester and England defender fixated his eyes on Ashley Young’s corner and headed the ball in after trouncing any player that attempted to get in his way.

Against Croatia, set pieces are likely to once again be very important. Croatia made Russia look vulnerable from wide areas and twice came close with headers wide before Kramaric headed in Mandzukic’s cross.

Set pieces have been a key part of this World Cup and no team have benefitted more from dead-ball situations than England. However, their success is likely to come to a halt against Croatia who scored with a header and almost won the game against Russia from a corner.

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Stones.jpg

Set pieces will be important (AP)

5. Trippier and Young will be key to success

Against Denmark in their round of 16 match, Croatia were on the ropes then Jonas Knudsen and Henrik Dalsgaard were pushing on from full back which meant that Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic were forced to track back to risk an overload.

Of course England have only one designated wide player on each side but Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard ca drift wide. If Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young can keep Perisic and Rebic in their own half, Mario Mandzukic will be left isolated against England’s central defenders and Croatia will be unable to move up the pitch.

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Croatia use Rebic and Perisic to stretch the midfield as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic hang back and take advantage of the space this creates for them in the middle. England will also have to be warry of an overload in wide areas if Croatia get their full backs forward to support the two wide players and outnumber the England defenders.