Croatias captain, Luka Modric, believes the new-found unity of the England team will make them difficult opponents, unlike recent predecessors
When Luka Modric moved to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008 England had endured a summer without tournament football, having missed out on the European Championships. The Croatia midfielder would spend four seasons at White Hart Lane and it was a period in which he had a close-up view of the travails of the England team; the angst, anger and division that characterised the feel of it.
England would qualify for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 but there was little to write home about from either. They flopped at the former, with one of the low points being Wayne Rooneys on-camera critique of the jeering travelling support after the groupstage draw with Algeria, while they went into their shells at the latter to exit on penalties to Italy.
Modric remembers all of the stuff about the disconnect between the nation and the squad; how managing England was the Impossible Job. It would remain the case after his transfer to Real Madrid. As he racked up the titles, including one Champions League after the other, England continued to resemble a stuck record.
What worries Modric and the rest of Croatia, as they prepare for the World Cup semi-final against England in Moscow on Wednesday, is their opponents new-found unity. Quite simply, it is not supposed to be this way but, listening to Modric and other members of the Croatia set-up after their penalty shootout victory against Russia in the quarterfinal on Saturday night, it was plain that Gareth Southgates work has left them wary.
They are looking strong as a team, Modric said. I dont know if there is a different mentality but it seems that they are more like a team. They have this togetherness that is very important to have success.
Davor Suker, the former Croatia striker, who is now the president of the countrys football federation, echoed Modrics sentiments. What I would like is to face the England team of before but now they are very strong and we have to respect them, Suker said. It is not money that will play or Ferraris or watches. It will be 11 warriors against 11.
Modric played with the England defenders Kyle Walker and Danny Rose at Tottenham while he remembers the baby steps of Harry Kane into the professional game. Kane played a clutch of Europa League ties at the beginning of the 201112 season, including one a 2-1 home defeat against PAOK Salonika in which he and Modric started.
Harry was young and just coming up, Modric said. He was always a hard worker. I actually remember one story about him but I will keep it to myself.
That little tease drew a predictable reaction from the journalists in attendance but Modric was more forthcoming about a couple of matters that stand to shape the semifinal Englands set-piece prowess and the respective levels of fatigue.
Modric and his team-mates watched Englands 2-0 regulation time win over Sweden in the quarter-final earlier on Saturday and they noted how Harry Maguires headed opener from a corner had shaped the occasion. Corners or free-kicks have led to seven goals for England in the tournament.
Croatia suffered a damaging lapse on a Russia free-kick deep into extra time, which enabled Mario Fernandes to head the equaliser. They have conceded only three goals at the finals and one of the others came when they failed to defend a long throw into the box during the last16 penalty shootout victory against Denmark.
England are dangerous on set pieces, Modric said. They have players like Maguire, Harry Kane and [John] Stones, who are strong and they are scoring so much on set pieces. We are going to have to pay attention to those details because we conceded from one against Russia that we shouldnt have allowed.
Some of the Croatia players looked out on their feet during extra-time against Russia and bodies have started to buckle. The goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic, had carried a hamstring problem into the game, which he would feel at the end of normal time only to play on after treatment, while the rightback Sime Vrsaljko was forced off in extra time with a knee injury.
England have suffered less than us, Modric said. And we have fewer days to recover for the semi-final than we did for the quarter-final. But its a semi-final. We will find the extra motivation, the extra everything.
Modric was excellent against Russia, his influence growing in the second half after Zlatko Dalic introduced the defensive midfielder, Marcelo Brozovic. Previously, Modric and Ivan Rakitic had played in the centre of a 4-2-3-1 formation; now, they were released further forward, either side of Brozovic, in a 4-3-3. Modric has consistently looked better when he has played higher up the pitch and it is plain that one of Englands major challenges will be to nullify him.
What has shone through from the Croatia camp is how much relish there is for the meeting with England. The belief is that, unlike Denmark, in particular, and Russia, Southgates team will try to make the game; they will play on the front foot.
We like to play against teams like England because we have fast players and it will be open, Vedran Corluka, the former Manchester City and Tottenham defender, said. We both want to have the possession, we want to win. Englands style is a bit like Manchester Citys, especially with Stones who is always on the ball. Hopefully it will be like Wembley in 2007, when we won 3-2!