A chance of redemption and avoiding relegation has been offered up to England over the course of ninety minutes behind closed doors in Croatia. The Three Lions face their World Cup semi-final foes in the Nations League this Friday in a game that represents not only potential revenge but also a must-win for Gareth Southgate’s side should they have any serious hopes of not dropping into League B.
So, are England in store for more heartbreak at the hands of Croatia or will the coming clash pan out much better for Southgate’s boys? We can’t predict the result, but here’s everything you need to know before kickoff…
Croatia have always been something of a thorn in England’s side. The Three Lions went unbeaten during their first three meetings with the Balkan nation, but have since then lost three of five and two of those defeats were particularly significant.
It was Croatia who ended England’s hopes of qualifying for the 2008 European Championship with a 3-2 win the year prior, resulting in Steve McClaren’s abrupt dismissal as Three Lions boss, and of course Croatia also eliminated England from the World Cup semi-finals in Russia during the summer.
Consequentially, Croatia enter Friday’s game two places higher than England in the FIFA rankings. But whereas Spain could only beat Southgate’s side 2-1 at Wembley last month during the opening weekend of the Nations League, they absolutely hammered Croatia 6-0.
Croatia’s ability to control the midfield was at the heart of their semi-final win over the Three Lions in Russia and we saw a recurrence of the issue when Spain won 2-1 at Wembley last month, the visitors dictating the engine room for the majority of the match.
Much of that has to do with England’s 3-1-4-2 setup being pushed back into a far more conservative 5-3-2 that limits opportunities to really break out of the defensive third. But the personnel has changed this time around with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard injured, and James Maddison could prove to be a key differential.
He offers something England lacked in Russia – a midfielder capable of opening up the defence with a killer ball. The Leicester signing has already grabbed two assists this season, while averaging around two key passes per match.
On paper, Luka Modric’s stats aren’t quite so impressive but England will need to find a way of limiting the Real Madrid playmaker’s influence as much as possible. He was key for Croatia at the World Cup and particularly against England, providing the quality in possession to control the game.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic, clearly feeling very confident, has taken the audacious step of announcing his starting XI for Friday night’s clash. The key news comes at opposite ends of the pitch following the retirements of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and star striker Mario Mandzukic, with former Leicester City man Andrej Kramaric replacing Croatia’s second all-time leading goalscorer.
They seriously need a new figurehead to lead the line, after Ivan Santini drew two blanks during the last international break, and Kramaric has been given a key chance to prove himself.
In goal meanwhile, an injury to Lovre Kalinic has forced Dalic to call up three goalkeepers with an average age of just 23 and only one cap between them. That belongs to Dominik Livakovic who will start between the sticks against the Three Lions.
The other notable changes from Croatia’s World Cup team are at full-back with Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsaljko both injured, as well as Mateo Kovacic replacing Marcelo Brozovic in central midfield after the Serie A star withdrew from the squad.
Injures will affect Southgate’s team selection too, with four withdraws already from the squad he selected alongside some key players being unavailable initially – chiefly Alli and Lingard. Accordingly, there’s a chance for plenty of new players to stake a claim for themselves across the midfield berth, including at left wing-back where Ben Chilwell is now nailed on to start after Danny Rose and Luke Shaw both dropped out of the squad.
Alonside the young defender, Leicester City team-mate Maddison could get his chance to impress against Croatia after a fantastic start to his Premier League career, already bagging three goals and two assists, while Ross Barkley has been brought in from the cold. We’re expecting the Chelsea man to partner Maddison in midfield with both so well-suited to the roaming No.8 roles in front of Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson.
The defence, meanwhile, should remain in tact from England’s last Nations League outing against Spain – although the Three Lions conceded twice and Joe Gomez looked a little nervy, they largely coped with pressure well against a talented team – and we’ll likely see a revival of England’s World Cup front-line with Raheem Sterling playing off Tottenham’s Harry Kane, meaning Marcus Rashford will be demoted to the bench despite scoring twice during the last international break.