Another round, another distinct challenge. Croatia will not be as conservative as Sweden, nor as aggressive as Colombia; for the first time, England face a team who will try to hurt them with technique.
Croatia are mostly pulled from the upper echelons of Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga, with a goalkeeper in Danijel Subasic who has come through two penalty shootouts, a strikeforce armed with Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic, all spinning around a Clasico axis of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. For England, to paraphrase the immortal words of Martin Lawrence, s*** just got real.
Because for all their success so far there remains a tinge of something – guilt? – that a journey so deep into the tournament has been achieved without achieving very much at all, without a prized head to hang on the wall, without a piece of footballing excellence against footballing excellence to imprint in our memories, like Michael Owen against Argentina in 98 or Alan Shearer against Holland in 96. Beating Croatia might still involve set-pieces and penalties, but to consistently get into those areas on Wednesday night in Moscow, England will have to outplay a team who came to Russia to play.
You could cut together video from this tournament to show Croatia are a vulnerable side, a team who can be prised and peeled and exposed, a team with a soft centre who are occasionally left with only Dejan Lovren standing hands on hips and the nightmarish face of Domagoj Vida scowling towards absent team-mates. But for the most part they are slick and interchangeable, a team who can choose any given tempo at any given time, and who revolve around their twin schemers, a utopian blend of Real Madrid guile and Barcelona heart.
Modric scuttles and scurries, determined off the ball and immaculate on it, a player who can get out of any terrifying crevasse, who could receive a pass at the end of the world’s longest corridor and return it without touching the sides. Rakitic glides, covering every blade of grass without breaking into a sprint or a sweat, eternally unfazed, who wandered over for the winning penalties against Denmark and Russia like he was hanging out the washing.
Much of the talk before the tournament was of how manager Zlatko Dalic would get the best out of the pair – particularly Modric. There is no obvious destroyer to act as his personal security guard like Casemiro at the Bernabeu. He has been tried as a No 4, a No 10 and everything in between. Against Russia it was noticeable how both Modric and Rakitic came out of their shells once Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic came on and the team shifted from 4-2-3-1 (the duo had been in the holding two) to a 4-3-3 which released them, like some of the freedom Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard are afforded playing either side of Jordan Henderson, and this might be the most challenging iteration for England to cope with.
Like England, Croatia have been building bridges with their public while in Russia, most notably Modric who faces potential jail time over perjury charges, a subject of national debate before the tournament as to whether he was the right man to wear the captain’s armband, or even play at all. It is a conflicted nation still making up its mind, where football has a political and social impact far beyond #itscominghome memes and the opportunity to launch the rest of you pint as high as humanly possible. Outside the England bubble it should not be forgotten that Croatia want to win this semi-final just as much as Southgate’s side, maybe more.
And now they stand in each other’s way, each other’s only obstacle to a World Cup final. This will be a different test to anything that has come and gone before; for the first time in this tournament, Southgate has a football match to truly test his footballing revolution.