SAINT PETERSBURG, Russian Federation, Jul 10 – Youth faces experience when England’s young guns and Croatia’s old guard face off in Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final in Moscow, with the prize of a return trip to the Luzhniki Stadium for the final.
England have not reached the last four for 28 years and have only once before reached the final, when they won the World Cup on home soil in 1966.
Croatia have never gone beyond the semis, but after matching the achievements of their much-revered 1998 side, a richly talented generation’s luck may have turned in time to land the biggest prize in football.
AFP Sport looks at three key battles that could decide where the game is won and lost.
Jordan Henderson v Luka Modric
Just over six weeks on from Liverpool’s defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final, Henderson has his chance to exact revenge on Modric and extend his incredible run of 30 matches without defeat in an England shirt – the longest unbeaten run for any player in England’s history.
Henderson’s leadership, discipline and distribution as Gareth Southgate’s deepest-lying midfielder has been key to allowing Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli to get forward and score goals in Russia.
However, that midfield faces its toughest test yet with Modric in the form of his life at 32.
Modric has played defence-splitting passes, scored goals and dictated the rhythm of the game during three man-of-the-match performances in the four games he has completed at the World Cup.
After a third Champions League success in as many years, Modric has even been touted as a Ballon d’Or candidate should Croatia go all the way.
Harry Kane v Dejan Lovren
Facing the tournament’s top scorer brings back bad memories for Lovren. The Liverpool defender was replaced after just half an hour into a 4-1 defeat by Tottenham in October after being run ragged by Kane.
It was a performance that many believed would end Lovren’s career at Anfield. But he fought to win back Jurgen Klopp’s confidence at club level and has marshalled a Croatian defence that shut down Lionel Messi and Argentina in the group stages.
In total, Kane has scored five times in five meetings with Lovren and will look to seal the Golden Boot by adding to his six goals already at the World Cup.
Kieran Trippier v Ivan Perisic
Trippier has been one of the breakout stars of the World Cup. Nicknamed the “Bury Beckham” for the similarities in the quality of his crossing to the former England captain, Trippier is rivalling Neymar and Kevin De Bruyne for creating the greatest number of chances at the tournament so far.
Southgate’s 3-5-2 system with another natural right-back, Kyle Walker, in the back three has allowed Trippier to get forward at every opportunity. But his defensive capabilities will be examined up against Perisic.
The Inter Milan winger has scored five times in his past 11 appearances at major international tournaments and is the one player in the Croatian attack with the pace to stretch the England defence.