Just one match separates England and Croatia from a place in Sunday’s World Cup final against France.
In anticipation of the semi-final against Croatia, former Three Lions striker and national team fanatic Dean Ashton weighed in on his friends’ disappointing drinking habits, which English players he hopes to see break into future squads, and, of course, his thoughts and predictions for Wednesday’s big match.
How was your barbecue for the Sweden game?
Dean Ashton: Immense. We properly stocked the fridge up. Having spoken to my friends and people in and around Norwich where I live, it just doesn’t happen that often and everyone wants to make the most of it – we certainly have at our house. It’ll be the same again for the Croatia match. Everyone’s coming over, and the fridge will be full.
Was the fridge empty by the time the barbecue was over?
DA: Probably not. It wasn’t up to what I’d expect, and I was disappointed in a few people, but we did have a good go. To be fair, I did go out and buy some more alcohol before everyone got there because I was worried there wouldn’t be enough. We had plenty.
Have you been enjoying the footage of celebrations from around the country?
DA: Absolutely. Even in Norwich, the city centre was packed with people celebrating. Obviously, we’ve got Brexit on the horizon, and it feels like everybody needed not only the good weather we’ve had, but also England doing well in the World Cup. The way England and (manager) Gareth Southgate have performed has brought everyone else in the country together.
It’s not to be underestimated how important football can be for everyone. It’s great to finally see the reaction I saw as a young person when England reached the semi-final in 1990. That’s why I fell in love with it. What the World Cup does is draw in not just football fans, but everybody.
If England gets eliminated by Croatia, are the players already heroes?
DA: Yeah, I think so. The way they’ve conducted themselves and the moments within the tournament will catapult quite a few of the players into massive stars. I think they will be celebrated when they come home – but wouldn’t it be unbelievable for us to get to a World Cup final again?
There are so many young players, which bodes well for the future. Are there any youngsters outside the squad that you’re excited to potentially see break through?
DA: Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon is one straight off the top of my head. I was really impressed with him last season and I think he’ll have the hunger now that he’s playing in the Premier League. What’s really exciting is that Southgate, having worked with the English youth teams, will be looking at these players.
Angus Gunn is goalkeeper I really like – Bryan Gunn’s son – who’s just moved to Southampton. Tom Cairney’s another one for Fulham. Even the likes of Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke, Nathaniel Chalobah – there are so many of them who have barely scratched the surface with the England squad.
Croatia’s Sime Vrsaljko looks like he’ll miss the match through injury, meaning Vedran Corluka may deputise at right-back. He’s not the most mobile, so how would England look to take advantage of this?
DA: I would say Danny Rose might play, but I think I’ve said that in every interview I’ve given you and he’s not played, so I think it’ll still be the same. It will be up for the likes of Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard, and Dele Alli to try and look at who’s playing and where their weakness are. Obviously, if Corluka plays we know he’s not the quickest, so I’m sure they’ll look at that. Vrsaljko will be missed because he’s a quality player – if you’re at Atletico Madrid, you’re a good defender.
What’s good is that England have managed to get through without any injuries or suspensions and look like they’ve got a full squad to choose from.
Would you make any changes to central midfield?
DA: No – I still feel Croatia isn’t necessarily one of the elite teams that has the pace to hurt you, and we certainly seem better on the front foot. When we changed against Colombia, I think that took a bit of impetus away from our play. I’d rather see us have a real good go at this semi-final and try to attack Croatia. I think the way Jordan Henderson’s played he’ll be fine on his own in there, and at times someone in the back-three like John Stones is able to step into the midfield and support as well.
One of the surprises against Russia was that Croatia called in Andrej Kramaric and dropped Marcelo Brozovic. Do you think Brozovic will come back in to bulk up the midfield?
DA: I would say yes. They will look at England and see at times Henderson may be isolated, so they can try to pack the midfield and outnumber them. If it was me, I would definitely do that because it’s where you can get space against England – either side of Henderson. He can’t cover all the ground on his own, even with the unbelievable energy he has.
Croatia’s focus must be to give Luka Modric as much time and space as possible.
DA: Of course, and that’s where whoever plays in that No. 10 role is vital. They need to do their defensive work and get back because sometimes he’ll drop deep, get hold of the ball, and dictate play.
Do you think Mario Mandzukic could be a danger man if he stands on Kyle Walker and tries to challenge him aerially and positionally?
DA: If I was him, I’d be pulling onto Walker as much as I possibly can. I think he’s beatable in the air. It’s down to the players to cut the supply to Mandzukic. In the back-three, you’d feel Stones would see that danger and shuffle across to double up on Mandzukic.
The thing with Croatia is they’re not going to hurt you in behind. They haven’t got out-and-out pace. Their quickest player is Ivan Perisic, and he’s going to be up against Kieran Trippier and Walker – he’s not going to outpace them. We can be aggressive in the way we defend.
In the Premier League, Harry Kane often leads the shot count by a mile, but at this World Cup he’s far down the list. How can England create more opportunities for him?
DA: Other than Belgium, which was a non-game really, this is the first team that will come out and, at times, try to attack England. Before this, every single team sat back and denied us space, which makes it very difficult for Kane to work in and create chances. I’m hoping Croatia – being a better team on the ball and having dangerous players going forward – will leave some space for us to counter-attack and hopefully get Kane on the ball.
Do you think this could be a game that works out well for Sterling?
DA: I’m still backing him. It would be perfect for me if he scored a couple against Croatia and got us through to the final, getting those doubters off his back. He deserves that moment in the limelight for the good work he does. But who knows – I still feel set plays are where we’re the most dangerous and, regardless of the semi-final, I think we can win the World Cup because of how good we are at set plays. I wouldn’t fear France in the final because of the threat we possess in that department.
How difficult will it be for Croatia after playing back-to-back games of 120 minutes?
DA: It can make a difference, certainly with the age of their squad. The average age is a lot higher than England’s, and that’s where you’re hoping later on in the game our pace and youthfulness can be a real factor. It’s important England keep things nice and tight – certainly in the first half – and hope that Croatia then tire and we can spot the gaps. You’ve got Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who can come on with pace as well.
Can I get a score prediction out of you?
DA: 2-1 England. It’s going to be close, I can see Croatia scoring, but I think set plays will be a big factor and we’ll get through.
This interview has been edited and condensed. If you have a question for Dean, please submit it to @danieljrouse on Twitter.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)