The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Chances are you know exactly what to expect from the England team tonight. You know what book Frank Lampard is reading. You know what brand of seltzer Sol Campbell likes to put in his orange juice. You even know about Peter Crouch’s hobby as the Dean of Engineering at Arizona State. But what about Croatia? How will they line up? Do any of their players have names? If you were to land a checker on the space beneath their collar, would it be rude to say “king me”? As far as I can tell, Croatia are a team which spontaneously sprang into existence three days ago in order to feed reporters quotes about the Wembley pitch. But here are a few things to look out for as they take the field tonight.
1. They have a talented young midfield. They’ll most likely start Portsmouth’s Niko Kranjčar in the middle alongside a coy piece of Arsenal transfer gossip named Luka Modrić. Both are gifted playmakers, if not particularly menacing as scorers, and have already been compared to members of Croatia’s great attacking teams of the 1990s. Behind them we should see Niko Kovač, a rough bit of defensive-minded business who’s done his grim duty all over the Bundesliga. On the wings they should feature Dortmund’s Mladen Petrić (who can also play at striker), and Darijo Srna, who will bizarrely combine with the absence of David Beckham to ensure that Croatia, and not England, will feature a free-kick specialist on the right side of midfield.
2. Their defenders are plodding but versatile. Croatia’s steady back four can swap positions easily—their right back, Vedran Ćorluka of Manchester City, can also play on the left, and their left back, AC Milan’s Dario Šimić, can play on the right. Both can also cover for Robert Kovač and Josip Šimunić in the middle. (You remember Šimunić as the beneficiary of Graham Poll’s three-yellow-cards experiment during the World Cup.) This modularity is extremely important as none of these players is blazing fast and a canny attack can catch them out of position. Expect them to play a high line against Peter Crouch but not to move forward too aggressively on the attack.
3. It’s not every day that they score six goals—just every day they play against Andorra. (Unless they score seven, of course. Come to think of it, if it weren’t for Croatia, Andorra would only have been outscored 29-2 in qualifying matches so far!) Croatia’s twin executions of Andorra have made them look a bit more deadly on the attack than they probably really are. Petrić can score, and Arsenal’s Eduardo da Silva has been outstanding in these qualifying matches. But he’ll most likely be playing as a lone striker tonight, and it’s hard to see him punishing the English defense the way he did those of Israel and Estonia. He did score over Paul Robinson in the match against England in Zagreb, but that was the match in which McClaren tried his weak 3-5-2 and Robinson had his bizarre air-kick, so it can’t be called a representative encounter.
4. It just about adds up to a 4-1-4-1, then, or whatever you call a formation that uses a holding midfielder and a single striker. With England also using five midfielders, it should be a crowded day in the middle of the pitch, and whichever team can most effectively get the ball wide and move it toward goal will have a significant advantage. That will most likely be England, and for that reason, this looks like a 2-0 win for the home team to me. (I know nothing: keep it in mind.) The atmosphere at Wembley should be electric, as the commentators are bound to note four thousand times, and that can only help England. And as Croatia have already qualified, they’ll be playing on part motivation. That, too, can only hurt this smooth and disciplined team: they have nothing to lose, and therefore probably will.
by Brian Phillips · November 21, 2007