England dare to dream but Croatia to be sternest test yet
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It has been 52 long, mostly painful years for the England football team since their last and only World Cup triumph, but both players and fans are now starting to believe that, just maybe, the wait could be over.
But to get to their first World Cup final since 1966, when England lifted the trophy on home soil, Gareth Southgate's side will have to overcome their sternest test yet in Russia: a semi-final showdown with a Croatia team packed with talent, themselves looking to create history by reaching the final for the first time.
The renewed optimism in an England team that has reached the semi-finals of the World Cup for just the third time in their history and the first time since 1990 has been characterised by the reappearance of an old refrain, ringing out in pubs and bars across the country and on social media: that of "Three Lions", a song first released in 1996 for that year's European Championships, and particularly its chorus declaring that "football's coming home".
For a long time that seemed a fanciful thought but one that now, for England fans, is tantalisingly close to coming to fruition.
Not that Southgate, a calming voice of reason at the helm of this young England squad, is getting carried away.
It was he, after all, who missed the crucial penalty in Euro '96 - when "Three Lions" was topping the charts - that saw England crash out at the semi-final stage to Germany. He is a man who knows how easily dreams can be broken.
"'Football's Coming Home' is a song I couldn't even listen to for 20 years, frankly. So for me it has a slightly different feel," Southgate told reporters on Tuesday, before adding: "But it's nice to hear people are listening to it again."
Nevertheless, there is a quiet confidence about this England squad.
"We were not certain what this team might be capable of," Southgate said.
"We believed in its potential, and I think the games that we've prepared for, we had belief we would win, but there is still pressure in all of those matches, so I'm really pleased with how the team have emerged and developed."
There are reasons to be hopeful: England have the tournament's leading goalscorer in their ranks in the form of Harry Kane and demonstrated a defensive solidity in their 2-0 quarter-final win over Sweden.
Their penalty shootout win over Colombia in the last 16 - just the second time England have won on penalties at a major tournament in seven attempts - has also laid that particular ghost to rest.
Biggest test yet
But for all of the optimism around England, perhaps the one major doubt about their chances of reaching Sunday's final with France is that they have yet to come up against one of the really big guns at the World Cup.
Besides the narrow victory over Colombia and straightforward win against Sweden, they beat Tunisia in their tournament opener thanks to a late Harry Kane goal and brushed aside a poor Panama 6-1.
Their one defeat came against Belgium in their final group game, in a match between two essentially reserve sides.
The challenge posed by Croatia is likely to be more demanding, especially as Zlatko Dalic's side features one of the best midfield pairings around, in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
Real Madrid playmaker Modric, who was at Tottenham Hotspur earlier in his career at the same time a young Kane was starting out, has been a particular inspiration.
The captain was the man of the match again in the penalty shootout win over Russia in Sochi at the weekend.
That allowed Croatia to reach the semi-finals for the first time since the 1998 World Cup in France, which was their first as an independent nation.
Croatia hoping to 'write history'
"Croatia has great players playing at the greatest clubs, but it is true we have not had good results at major tournament for decades," the coach said on Tuesday.
"The results were below the level and quality of our players. Something had to change to get the results," Dalic said.
"So we should not be surprised that Croatia are in the semi-finals given the quality of the players."
For a country with a population of little more than four million, making it all the way to the final would be a remarkable achievement and like England.
"There is still a lot to play. England is also one of the favourites to win the World Cup and you need to respect that. But we have nothing to lose, we will enjoy this game, and hopefully we can write history," said defender Dejan Lovren, of Premier League side Liverpool.
The fact that Croatia have had to play so much football could perhaps give England an edge, all the more so given the injury problems faced by Dalic.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic soldiered on against Russia despite hurting a hamstring, while right-back Sime Vrsaljko is expected to miss the game.
However, Southgate refuses to accept the idea that England will be significantly fresher.
"Any team in a World Cup semi-final is going to find the energy and going to find the motivation. So we won't win the game just because Croatia had half an hour more football than us three days ago. We've got to win because we play better."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)