England are confident they will beat any lingering effects of fatigue from an increasingly hectic campaign by the time they start their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years, and are hopeful an unchanged lineup can exploit tiredness in Croatia’s ranks.
Their opponents at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday have been extended to extra time and penalty shootouts in each of their knockout games, against Denmark and Russia, and played against the hosts in Sochi on Saturday evening after England’s far more comfortable success over Sweden. They have serious doubts over the availability of their goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and the right-back Sime Vrsaljko.
“Especially physically, it is very demanding on the body to go 120 minutes in a game and then obviously fly back to your base as well,” said Ashley Young. “We felt that when we played Colombia but now they have done it twice, so it could be a major advantage to us and work in our favour. That said, it’s a World Cup semi-final and players will do everything they can, putting their bodies on the line, to play. It’ll be a tough game, so we’ve got to be mentally and physically prepared for what they will throw at us.”
England trained with a full complement in Zelenogorsk on Monday, with any fears over Jordan Henderson’s fitness having receded since the Liverpool midfielder limped away from the victory in Samara complaining of hamstring trouble. Jamie Vardy, who has been hampered with a groin problem that required two sugar injections, also took part, with Gareth Southgate’s squad effectively given a clean bill of health.
The manager hopes to select an unchanged lineup for a tie that will see an increased English presence in the stands, with the Football Association expecting up to 10,000 fans to travel to Moscow, and will resist the temptation to add more defensive steel to his side. The threat of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic is clear but England’s gameplan will remain attack-minded and progressive.
“That pair are world-class,” said Eric Dier, who is likely to remain among the substitutes with Henderson fit to feature. “Modric is a fantastic player who can create magical moments. He’s been one of the outstanding performers so far in this World Cup, so we will have to do our jobs as a team and as individuals, and contain them both. But you can still play on the front foot and be aggressive. We never want to be reactive. We want to be proactive. When you play against stronger opposition it is natural to do more defensive work, but that doesn’t mean we change our style or our mentality.
“Our style is to play on the front foot. That is what the manager wants from us and that is what the players believe in as well. We know that the next game is going to be the hardest yet, not just because of the opposition but because of the circumstances as well. We know there are going to be difficult periods in the game, but we never want to be on the back foot. We want to be aggressive and constantly on the front foot.”
Although Young was quick to insist he had sensed “no fear” in the squad ahead of the national side’s biggest match since 1990, there is a realisation that a once-in-a-lifetime chance may await this group of players in Moscow. “It’s a great opportunity, we all know that,” said Kyle Walker. “I think it’s the best opportunity that England’s ever had, and probably might ever have, because, no disrespect to Croatia, the other side of the draw was a lot more difficult.
“They have got some fantastic players. I’ve played with Luka and for me he is one of the best midfielders in the world by far, but they also have to worry about us. We’ve played well in the games.
“We’ve showed immense character, like when the equaliser went in against Colombia and we dug ourselves out, stepping up for the penalties. So we have shown character, we’ve shown belief. That’s what is going to get us over the line in this game.”