Sam Hendry previews today’s World Cup semi finals
Sweden v England
Is football coming home? It will never have a better chance to.
Only Sweden and either Russia or Croatia stand between England and a first World Cup final since 1966 after they finally won a World Cup penalty shootout at the fourth attempt.
It’s an unbelievable opportunity for this young and inexperienced squad who saw the quarter-finals as their ceiling at the outset of the tournament but are now dreaming of bigger things.
Sweden enter this match in the same frame of mind and they should not, and will not, be underestimated by Gareth Southgate.
They saw off Holland in their qualifying group, Italy in the play-off and then topped Group F ahead of Mexico and Germany before prevailing against Switzerland in the last-16
There are no big names amongst this current crop of Swedes and it’s their work ethic and stubborn defence which has seen them reach this stage – only Germany have been able to score past Robin Olsen so far.
With the assistance of VAR, this has become the World Cup of penalties with England and Harry Kane being the main beneficiaries of this, winning and converting three spot kicks so far – a number that would have been higher if Tunisia’s penalty box grappling had been punished in their opener.
England have struggled to create chances from open play and it could be the same here with Sweden likely to drop off and limit the space available for Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to exploit.
Sweden can’t be written off but I’m backing England to reach the semis with a 1-0 victory here and a few quid on England to score a penalty is also worth consideration.
Russia v Croatia
Russia had already confounded many people’s expectations even before they dumped out Spain on penalties to reach the quarter-finals of their own World Cup.
This may be where they are eventually found out, although the psychological advantage of the Russians having home advantage could do strange things to both teams.
Not blessed with great skill or top-class talent, they battled past an inept Spain side whose attempts to pass the hosts to death failed spectacularly and their baffling refusal to try any other way of attack costing them dearly.
Croatia will not be so one-dimensional in their play. In Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, they have players more than capable of providing those killer passes, but Mario Mandzukic provides a physical threat from long balls and crosses and the pace of Ivan Perisic is another danger.
Croatia also had to rely on penalties to see of Denmark in a performance which was a significant regression from their impressive group stage showings.
They have better players than Russia all over the park, though, and if they can play to their potential then the Croats should be able to reach a second World Cup semi-final.
Mario Mandzukic to score first and Croatia to win by two are my bets.