England v Croatia World Cup preview: Southgate's pride at nation's unity on Three Lions' date with destiny

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World Cup: England v Croatia preview
World Cup: England v Croatia preview
  • England just hours away from first World Cup semi final in 28 years

  • Southgate: ‘England has had difficult moments recently, but sport unites people’

  • Manager faces selection dilemma on whether to keep faith with team which beat Sweden

  • Up to 10,000 England fans may arrive in Moscow as demand for tickets surges

  • Hyde Park to host fan park with 30,000 people as pubs and bars back home prepare

Gareth Southgate revealed his pride that England’s World Cup adventure had unified the country, as his Three Lions prepare for their biggest fixture in 28 years.

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England’s manager is preparing his side for their first World Cup semi final since 1990, with the country expected to come to a halt for tonight’s 7pm kickoff.

Thousands more England fans will descend on Moscow in a last-ditch rush for a ticket, while pubs, bars and parks back home expect to be packed for the crunch fixture.

Speaking before Wednesday’s World Cup semi final, Southgate made what appeared a thinly-veiled reference to the societal splits over Brexit as he surveyed the joyous scenes which have taken place up and down the country.

Taking it in: Southgate and Jordan Henderson take a stroll on the pitch at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. (Aaron Chown/PA)
Taking it in: Southgate and Jordan Henderson take a stroll on the pitch at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. (Aaron Chown/PA)
Ready to go: England’s squad train ahead of their first World Cup semi final in 28 years. (PA)
Ready to go: England’s squad train ahead of their first World Cup semi final in 28 years. (PA)
Cool and collected: Gareth Southgate addresses the media before England’s semi final. (Aaron Chown/PA)
Cool and collected: Gareth Southgate addresses the media before England’s semi final. (Aaron Chown/PA)

He said: ‘Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of its unity, and sport has the power to do that (unite people),’ he said.

‘Football in particular has the power to do that. We can feel the energy and feel support from home and it’s a very special feel, a privilege for us.’

Team news: Does Southgate stick or twist?

On the pitch, Southgate faces a dilemma over whether to stick with his current (and winning) starting XI, or give England’s squad players a chance to shine against Croatia.

He kept the same starting XI from the Colombia game against Sweden, despite fans believing he may have brought in Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling.

England’s Dele Alli and Harry Kane, alongside Croatia’s Luca Modric and Ivan Rakitic, will be four of the key players in the semi final. (FIFA/Getty)
England’s Dele Alli and Harry Kane, alongside Croatia’s Luca Modric and Ivan Rakitic, will be four of the key players in the semi final. (FIFA/Getty)

Tottenham midfielder Allí scored the decisive second goal against Sweden despite not looking 100% fit.

Ashley Young also faced being replaced by Danny Rose but also kept his place.

How many England fans will be in Moscow?

Supporters who had stayed at home for the early stages of the tournament have flocked to get a piece of the action as Gareth Southgate’s men chase a first World Cup final in 52 years.

And spirits were high in central Moscow as fans sang and cheered late into the night on the eve of the biggest game in nearly three decades.

Happy and glorious: England fans show off their colours in Moscow’s Red Square hours before kickoff. (PA)
Happy and glorious: England fans show off their colours in Moscow’s Red Square hours before kickoff. (PA)
National pride: England fans in Moscow ahead of the World Cup semi final.
National pride: England fans in Moscow ahead of the World Cup semi final.
England fans pose for a picture with a replica World Cup trophy in Red Square ahead of the World Cup semi final. (PA)
England fans pose for a picture with a replica World Cup trophy in Red Square ahead of the World Cup semi final. (PA)
Fans mix in central Moscow hours before the match. (PA)
Fans mix in central Moscow hours before the match. (PA)

Across the UK, pubs, bars, gardens and public parks are getting ready to host huge World Cup parties – with police warning fans not to ‘overstep the line’ with any celebrations in light of the excesses following Saturday’s quarter-final victory.Around 30,000 people are expected in London’s Hyde Park, where a special screening has been organised.

In Moscow, police estimated between 8,000 to 10,000 England fans may arrive in the Russian capital.

‘That’ England anthem…

The catalyst for the football feelgood factor across England has been the famous refrain of ‘It’s Coming Home’, from the track by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds for Euro 96.

Even Southgate, who missed the crucial penalty in the semi final of that tournament, can now tolerate the England anthem having not been able to listen to it for 20 years.

He added: ‘Football’s coming home…I couldn’t listen to it for 20 years, frankly.

‘I would just walk out of the room, it is an anthem and has followed the team for a long time but it’s involved some difficult moments as well. I don’t choose to stick it on, it’s not on the playlist, but I can listen to it.

‘It has a slightly different feel for me, but it’s nice to hear people enjoying it again. It is nice to be able to put a different frame on it now. I still look back on it as an incredible life experience and to be involved with it, I just needed a bit of time to get over it.’

England v Croatia: The key battles. (PA)
England v Croatia: The key battles. (PA)

Southgate drew parallels between the class of ’96 and his current generation, noting similarities but also the current squad’s relative inexperience.

Whether or not they can outstrip their predecessors – Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams et al – by reaching a major final remains to be seen but Southgate is sure they will give a good account of themselves regardless of the outcome.

‘The feel of this group of players is very similar to the players we had then,’ he said.

THE 32: WATCH THE LATEST EPISODE OF YAHOO’S WORLD CUP SHOW

‘But that team was a lot more experienced in terms of its age and experience of big matches. We have emerging leaders. At that time, the team had six captains of their clubs. There was a lot of leadership in the group.

‘But we’ve approached it the same way, a lot of guys enjoying our football. That is what these guys have done. It’s another step in a journey. We feel we’re in a good place playing well.

‘Football is a low scoring game with random events that can happen, but I’m certain our team will play well. I have complete trust they’ll go and play in the way they have throughout this tournament.’

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