MOSCOW-England are dreaming of a first World Cup final since 1966 but first they must come through Wednesday's semi-final at the Luzhniki Stadium against Croatia in what looks like their toughest test yet in Russia.

Excitement has reached fever-pitch levels back in England, with Gareth Southgate's young team making it to the last four of a major tournament for the first time since Euro '96, and for the first time at a World Cup since Italy in 1990.

Both of those runs ended in defeats on penalties, but there is a belief that something could be different this time. England have already won a shootout in Russia, against Colombia in the last 16. And a young, likeable side with an eminently sensible and humble manager in Southgate have captured the hearts of a nation.

Can Southgate now become the first manager to win a World Cup semi-final with England on foreign soil as he bids ultimately to match the achievement of Alf Ramsey's side? "We were not certain what this team might be capable of," Southgate admitted to ITV, mindful of England's many recent failures.

They had won just one knockout match at a major tournament in 16 years before coming to Russia, a 1-0 victory against Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. "We believed in its potential, and I think the games that we've prepared for, we had belief we would win, but there is still pressure in all of those matches, so I'm really pleased with how the team have emerged and developed."

Southgate has been just the voice of reason England have needed to prevent anyone from getting too carried away. For all of the hype around England, they have yet to come up against one of the really big guns at the World Cup.

They beat Tunisia in their tournament opener thanks to a late Harry Kane goal, brushed aside a poor Panama, edged out Colombia on penalties and easily beat Sweden in the quarter-finals. Their one defeat came against Belgium in their final group game, in a match between two essentially reserve sides.

The challenge posed by Croatia is likely to be more demanding, especially as Zlatko Dalic's side features one of the best midfield pairings around, in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Real Madrid playmaker Modric, who was at Tottenham Hotspur earlier in his career at the same time a young Kane was starting out, has been a particular inspiration. The captain was the man of the match again in the penalty shootout win over Russia in Sochi at the weekend. That allowed Croatia to reach the semi-finals for the first time since the 1998 World Cup in France, which was their first as an independent nation. For a country with a population of little more than four million, making it all the way to the final would be a remarkable achievement. "There is still a lot to play. England is also one of the favourites to win the World Cup and you need to respect that. But we have nothing to lose, we will enjoy this game, and hopefully we can write history," said defender Dejan Lovren, of Premier League side Liverpool.

Since 1998, Croatia have endured disappointments at major tournaments themselves, notably losing on penalties to Turkey in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals. But there is less pressure on them now. "The biggest pressure came against Denmark in the round of 16 (which also went to extra-time and a penalty shootout). We feel much easier at this point," said striker Mario Mandzukic.

The fact that Croatia have had to play so much football could perhaps give England an edge, all the more so given the injury problems faced by Dalic. Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic soldiered on against Russia despite hurting a hamstring, while right-back Sime Vrsaljko is expected to miss the game.

However, Southgate refuses to accept the idea that England will be significantly fresher. "Any team in a World Cup semi-final is going to find the energy and going to find the motivation. So we won't win the game just because Croatia had half an hour more football than us three days ago. We've got to win because we play better."

 

World Cup semi-final history

ENGLAND

*             England's first semi-final appearance at a World Cup came at their home tournament in 1966.

*             In front of more than 90,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, Bobby Charlton put them ahead with a rebound shot from a clearance in the first half and added another after the break to go 2-0 up against Portugal, led by 1965 Ballon d'Or winner Eusebio.

*             The Portuguese cut the deficit in the 82nd minute with Eusebio's penalty but the hosts held on to set up a final against West Germany, whom they beat 4-2 after extra time to lift their only international trophy to date.

*             The Three Lions reached their second World Cup semi-final in 1990 but it was a far less joyous experience.

*             England and West Germany were goalless at halftime at Turin's Stadio delle Alpi. German Andreas Brehme put the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finalists ahead with a deflected shot off Paul Parker.

*             With time running out and pressure mounting, England charged forward and their all-time top World Cup scorer Gary Lineker snatched an 80th minute equaliser to send the game into extra time.

*             Despite both teams hitting the woodwork and missing chances to score in extra time, including David Platt having an effort ruled offside, they were still tied 1-1 when they went to penalties.

*             The Germans and English scored all of their first three penalties, with Brehme, Lothar Matthaeus, Karl-Heinz Riedle and Lineker, Peter Beardsley and Platt.

*             But then Stuart Pearce had his penalty saved by Bodo Illgner before Olaf Thon converted Germany's fourth to give them the edge.

*             Chris Waddle then sent his effort high over the bar to send West Germany through to the final and leave England's Paul

Gascoigne in tears.

 

 

CROATIA

*             Croatia, who became independent after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, made their first World Cup appearance in 1998 and reached the semi-finals at their very first attempt.

*             Led by current Croatian Football Association President Davor Suker and a string of talented players who learned their trade in what was then Yugoslavia during their youth years, including Alen Boksic, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki among others, Croatia enjoyed a fine run to the last four.

*             They finished second in their group behind Argentina but then edged Romania in the round of 16 with a Suker penalty before stunning Germany 3-0, with Suker again on target.

*             The Croats' 'golden generation' then took a 1-0 lead over hosts France at Paris' Stade de France early in the second half with Suker's fifth goal of the tournament but Lilian Thuram scored twice -- his only international goals -- to carry the home nation to a comeback victory and a spot in the final.

*             France beat Brazil to lift their first World Cup while Croatia had to settle for third place after goals from Suker and Prosinecki gave them a 2-1 win over Netherlands in the third place playoff match.

*             Before its independence Croatia was part Yugoslavia, who had reached the World Cup semi-finals twice. Nicknamed 'the Brazilians of Europe', the Yugoslavs lost to Uruguay 6-1 in their 1930 semi-final at the inaugural World Cup.

*             They also reached the last four in 1962 before losing to Czechoslovakia.

*             Croatia-born Drazen Jerkovic was joint top scorer of the 1962 tournament and was briefly caretaker coach of a still-unrecognised by both FIFA and UEFA Croatian national team in 1990.

 

   Key stats

 England are making their first World Cup semi-final appearance since 1990, when they lost to Germany on penalties.

 

The Three Lions’ only international title is the 1966 World Cup victory on home soil.

 

Croatia, who became independent in the early 1990s, have reached the World Cup last four once before, in their debut World Cup appearance in 1998. They lost to hosts and eventual winners France.

 

Croatia topped their World Cup group in Russia with three wins out of three games, scoring seven goals and conceding just one. They are unbeaten so far in the tournament.

England finished second in their group, having lost their final group match to Belgium.

 

Midfielder Luka Modric is Croatia’s top scorer in the tournament with two goals.

 

England forward Harry Kane, who tops the World Cup scorers’ list in Russia with six goals, is level with former striker Gary Lineker for most goals scored by an England player at one World Cup.

 

England have scored eight out of their 11 goals so far from set pieces including penalties.

- England’s 11 goals so far are equal to the country’s record of most goals at a single World Cup set back in 1966, when they won the title.

- Midfielder Jordan Henderson has not lost any of his last 30 England matches, the longest unbeaten run of any England player in history.

- England needed penalties to beat Colombia in the Round of 16, but eased into the last four with a trouble-free 2-0 victory over Sweden.

- Despite a comfortable run through their group, Croatia has had a tougher ride in the knockout rounds, needing extra time and penalties to eliminate both Denmark in the round of 16 and then hosts Russia in the last four.