England vs Croatia: Can Gareth Southgate’s men settle an old score?

In a balmy summer when the mercury peaked at 35.5C, millions of England fans up and down the country briefly began to dream. Kieran Trippier’s 5th minute free-kick sent the nation into raptures and made many of us believe that Baddiel & Skinner’s ‘It’s coming home’ refrain was finally coming to fruition.

Harry Kane’s failure to pick out Raheem Sterling in the box and goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic ended those dreams unfortunately. England regained a modicum of revenge over the Croatian counterparts later that year, when a superb late comeback saw them beat Croatia to top their Nations League group.

England, who are amongst the football bettingfavourites for this summer’s European Championships,won’t feel as though their revenge is complete until they have inflicted defeat on Croatia at a major tournament.

They will get that chance at 2pm on Sunday, June 13 in their tournament opener. In this article we analyse whether or not England have what it takes to put down a marker by beating Zlatko Dalic’s men at Wembley.

(England inflicted a modicum of revenge on Croatia in the 2018 Nations League but will be looking to strike a real blow to the Vatreni in their Euro 2020 opener.)

Who has Gareth Southgate selected in his squad?

Prior to this week, Gareth Southgate was yet to finalise his 26-man squad for the Euros, instead he has picked a 33-man provisional squad. It is thought that the England manager made this decision to get a good look at players with injury and fitness concerns, such as Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire.

The thinking behind picking a bloated provisional squad is that if Southgate was to call on Jude Bellingham or Ben White to replace Henderson or Maguire, they are less likely to feel like an afterthought.

Injury and fitness worries’ aside, one of the main talking points ahead of Southgate’s finalised 26-man squad on June 1 was the fate of Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Reece James and Trent Alexander-Arnold. The latter was left out of England’s last squad with Southgate, raising concerns about the 22-year-old right backs form at Anfield. Unfortunately, his thigh injury will prevent him from taking part in this year’s competition. Mason Greenwood also withdrew due to injury and exhaustion, hopefully he will be well rested for next season.

James Ward-Prowse,Ben White, Jesse Lingard and Ollie Watkins, Aron Ramsdale and Ben Godfrey were all left out of the final cut. Some of these decisions, such as dropping Jesse Lingard, have proved controversial thus far, however Southgate will surely have his reasons and only time will tell if he was right to do so.

Elsewhere in the squad, Leicester City playmaker James Maddison will feel unfortunate to have missed out as will Leeds United forward Patrick Bamford who has scored 17 goals on his return to the Premier League with Marcelo Bielsa’s team this season – outscoring the selected Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ollie Watkins, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford.

(Patrick Bamford has every right to feel aggrieved at his omission from the England squad after a record-breaking season in the Premier League for the Leeds United man.)

Where are England weakest?

It wouldn’t be too bold to say that England have one of the best attacking line-ups in the tournament with serial goal scorer Harry Kane set to be supported by a selection of Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden.

In midfield England look just as strong with the recent performances of Mason Mount at Chelsea catching the eye of England fans.

It is at the back though, where eyebrows begin to be raised. As previously discussed, the right-back berth is well covered and Ben Chilwell looks a solid and dependable option at left-back. At centre-back though there appears to be a real lack of quality cover as well as question marks about England’s preferred starting pair.

John Stones has had a superb season with Manchester City this season, but there is an argument to be made that his performances have been down in large part to the guidance and calming influence of Ruben Dias.

It is also looking increasingly likely that England will be without Harry Maguire for at least the beginning of the tournament, which would pile the pressure on Stones to lead from the back. The potential replacements for Maguire – Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings – haven’t been in great form either towards during the last stretch of the Premier League season.

Tournament winning sides are often built on stingy backlines, so England’s lack of quality depth at centre-back will be a real cause for concern for Southgate and fans alike.

What to expect from Croatia?

The Croatian side that come into this tournament are very different to the one that vanquished England in 2018. That squad, which was built on hard-work and determination, were riding the crest of a wave and upsetting the odds.

This side have the weight of expectation on their shoulders, as well as some serious question marks about their style of play. Despite leading his side to top spot in their Euro 2020 qualifying group, Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic came under fire for his perceived tinkering.

In a bid to overcome the losses of recent retirees, Dalic tried out a number of differing formations and tactics in qualifying to mixed success. One of the casualties to this experimentation was the Croatian defence, which has looked incredibly leaky of late.

Despite that, Croatia still have more than enough about them to pose questions of England, especially in midfield where they have the elite pairing of Luka Modric and Marcelo Brozovic to call on.

Then there is the direct Nikola Vlasic who has added a new dimension to Croatia’s offensive play and a thrust that was perhaps missing in Russia. All in all, the Vatreni have every reason to expect at the bare minimum a quarter-final showing which, with the luck of the draw, could turn into something slightly more special.

In Summary: Will England beat Croatia?

If England have a clean bill of health going into the game with Harry Maguire returning at the back and Jordan Henderson partnering Mount or Rice in midfield, England could well beat Croatia at Wembley.

As mentioned above, Croatia have looked vulnerable at the back in recent times, particularly from set-pieces, which is an area that England have traditionally excelled in under Southgate. Ultimately though, the game will come down to 2 key battles, the first being control for midfield supremacy.

The second, which is always unquantifiable with England is the mental battle, can England handle the pressure of going into a major tournament with expectation on their shoulders? Southgate’s men have already overcome one mental hurdle in beating Colombia on penalties in 2018, now it’s time to jump another.

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