A PLACE in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup is up for grabs on Saturday night when hosts Russia take on Croatia. Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his best bets
Russia v Croatia | Saturday 7th July 2018, 19:00 | ITV
Reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup is a significant milestone for both teams. Even if Croatia possess a high-profile squad, they haven’t achieved that feat since their run to third-place in 1998 while Russia haven’t done it in their current incarnation.
Knocking out 2010 winners Spain felt like a major accomplishment for Stanislav Cherchesov’s side, considering the muted expectations heading into the tournament.
Dilemma for Russia
Before Igor Akinfeev’s heroics in the penalty shoot-out, they were well-organised: veteran Sergei Ignashevich responded admirably to his early gaffe, Ilya Kutepov made some excellent interceptions in the middle of the back-five while Mario Fernandes was a handy outlet at right wing-back.
And yet, the big concern is that the Sbornaya struggled to construct counter-attacks with any fluidity.
When they stuffed eight past Saudi Arabia and Egypt combined, they were able to supply target man Artem Dyzuba from advanced areas and with accuracy; that’s when the quality of Aleksandar Golovin and the movement of Denis Cheryshev came to the fore.
Dyzuba scored the equalising penalty against Spain and has been their best striker at the tournament since making that huge impact from the bench against the Saudis. Surprisingly though, Cherchesov took him off in the second half of the last match, perhaps because he lacks the mobility to run in behind, which was required with the midfield so deep.
Alternative striker Fyodor Smolov is a willing runner but he appears technically limited, so Russia have a dilemma. Do they stay organised like they were against Spain and risk lacking creativity, or do they go back to the template that worked well in the first two games and risk coming unstuck against better opposition?
Croatia will of course be the better than Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but in their last-16 win over Denmark, which they needed a penalty shoot-out to complete, we saw a first glimpse of rustiness; surprisingly, given that Zlatko Dalic had made eight changes for the 2-1 win over Iceland in the final group game.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic showed flashes of what they can do but weren’t able to control the game with the same authority that we have seen earlier in the tournament.
Eight of the 11 that started last time out was older than 27, which might partly explain why they weren’t able to play at a high-intensity throughout.
Baring that moment of madness in the first minute against the Danes though, their defence remains strong. Dejan Lovren has come on hugely over the last six months for club and country, partner Domagoj Vida looks battle-hardened, right-back Sime Vrsaljko is a reliable performer while likely left-back Josip Pivaric is arguably a more impressive option than Ivan Strinic, who could miss out through injury.
Added to that, they have a goalkeeper in Danijel Subasic who will be full of confidence after saving three of the five penalties he faced in Nizhy Novgorod; the 33-year-old brings plenty of pedigree after playing such a big part in Monaco’s inspired 2016-17 campaign. Subasic’s expertise means there could be mileage in siding with Croatia, without expecting them to over-exert themselves.
The betting angle
Neither side has yet conceded a goal from open play at Russia 2018, so a Croatia win and Under 2.5 Goals looks tidy at 37/13 with 188BET.
For those who like a correct score punt, a 1-0 win for the Blazers can be backed at 11/2 with Bet365; it’s hard to imagine Zlatko Dalic’s side pushing for more goals if they score first.
Additionally, 26 penalties in 52 have been awarded so far at this tournament at the time of writing, so it might pay to back spot-kick takers in the anytime goalscorer market.
Modric saw his penalty brilliantly saved by Kasper Schmeichel in normal time in the previous game and, even if he was a tad lucky his shoot-out effort snuck through, the Real Madrid maestro should retain duties.
Considering that he netted from the spot against Nigeria and scored the perfect strike from open play against Argentina, Betfair’s 4/1 on him finding the net here completes our selection.