|2018 Fifa World Cup semi-final: Croatia v England|
|Date: Wednesday, 11 July (19:00 BST) Venue: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow|
|Coverage: Listen live on 5 live, with live text commentary online|
England manager Gareth Southgate believes the best is yet to come from his maturing team – even though they are potentially 90 minutes from their first World Cup final since 1966.
The Three Lions face Croatia in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday (19:00 BST) in their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years.
France await the winners in the final, but Southgate is convinced the future is bright whatever the outcome.
He said: “This team is nowhere near the level they’re going to be capable of, partly because of their age, but also because they’ll have more big-match experiences over the next few years with their clubs and with us.
“We are excited about the future but we want to make the most of this opportunity as well.”
Southgate is expected to name the same side that started the 2-0 quarter-final win over Sweden as he has a fully fit 23-man squad.
England have been rewriting history in Russia, and Southgate is hoping there will be more to come as they play their most important World Cup game since losing to West Germany on penalties in the semi-finals of Italia ’90.
“We’ve been one of the youngest teams in the tournament, the least experienced, but we were never quite sure how far this team could go,” said Southgate.
“The improvement and the hunger in the players is very clear for everyone to see. We’re pleased with the intelligence and style of our play.
“We’ve won after scoring in the last minute, won after conceding in the last minute, come through extra time and penalties.
“We’ve made several pieces of history. Biggest win in the tournament. First knockout win for 10 years. First quarter-final win for longer. First win on penalties in the World Cup.
“We keep looking to break the barriers down. It’s been an enjoyable journey, and we want to keep it going.”
Southgate’s England a unifying force
Southgate is well aware of the near-hysteria among England’s support at home, and takes pride from the manner in which his team is unifying the country.
He said: “We are really proud of the support we have received. We have had the chance to make a difference.
“Our supporters and our country has had a long time suffering in terms of football. They have real enthusiasm for these players, not only for the way they have played but also for the way they have conducted themselves.
“They are proud to wear the shirt. Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of unity but sport has the power to unite – and football in particular has the power to do that.
“You can feel the encouragement and support. It is a special feeling and a privilege.”
Southgate can finally listen to England song
England’s progress in Russia has revived the Three Lions anthem – which includes the line “football’s coming home”.
But Southgate revealed he could not listen to it for many years.
The song was released before Euro ’96, when Southgate missed England’s crucial penalty as they lost a semi-final shootout to Germany at Wembley.
“I couldn’t listen to it for 20 years, frankly,” said Southgate. “It has a slightly different feel for me, but it’s nice to hear people enjoying it again.”
‘If we win, nobody will go to work’
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic believes victory over England would spark a huge party in the country.
He said: “We are four million people, four million coaches and four million players. Everyone has been out on the streets celebrating what we’ve achieved and that is a great source of pride for us.
“Those emotions are what drive us, that is our petrol and how we have come back to a semi-final after 20 years.
“I don’t know what will happen if we win, probably nobody will go to work. We’re not working much now so you can imagine what it will be like if we win.”
Croatia finished top of Group D by beating Nigeria 2-0, Argentina 3-0 and Iceland 2-1, but needed penalty shootouts to get past Denmark in the last 16 and Russia in the quarter-finals.
“We shouldn’t be surprised Croatia is in the last four,” added Dalic, whose side are 20th in the world rankings – eight places below England.
“This generation has been underrated because of their results but they’ve had the quality and now they are showing it.”