England take on Croatia this Friday behind the closed doors of the Stadion HNK Rijeka. It’s fair to say this isn’t the biggest game between Croatia and England this year, it is however the latest chapter in what is quickly becoming one of European football’s most intense rivalries.
A Red Hot Rivalry
The World Cup semi final in June was the sixth competitive meeting between the two nations who now have three wins each going back to Euro 2004.
It seems harsh to say it after just one Nations League game each, but England’s two encounters with Croatia feel like a Nations League relegation play-off. Spain require only two points from their upcoming fixtures with England in Seville and away in Zagreb to ensure they win the group, after their controversial win at Wembley and subsequent 6-0 thrashing of Croatia.
That 6-0 humping was a record competitive defeat for Croatia, but that shouldn’t be taken as a sign England will have such an easy ride on Friday night. Croatia looked drained last month from their World Cup exploits and were missing 4 of their World Cup Final starting 11. Key duo Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic appear to have a spring back in their step, particularly Rakitic who’s excelling at Barcelona. Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic will be relieved to have Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren and winger Ante Rebic back to fitness.
Whilst Croatia should be much improved from their Spanish nightmare, they will be without two of their key World Cup stars in goalkeeper Daniejl Subasic and England’s semi-final nemesis Mario Mandzukic. Both retired after the World Cup and leave big holes for Dalic to fill.
Young Lions’ chance to roar
England head to Croatia with a squad holding an average age of just under 24. After the semi-retirements of Gary Cahill & Jamie Vardy, England’s young squad was always going to get younger. England’s midfield has been decimated by injuries to Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli, Adam Lalllana, Fabian Delph and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. That has led to call up’s for Harry Winks, Jadon Sancho, Nat Chalobah, James Maddison and Mason Mount. Between them they have 1 cap at senior level so this is very much a glimpse into England’s future.
Add in the recalled Ross Barkley, the more experienced Eric Dier & Jordan Henderson, thise injured players plus Lewis Cook, Will Hughes, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tom Davies, Declan Rice and Phil Foden and you appear to have all the pieces who will complete England’s midfield jigsaw. This game represents a step in establishing what that midfield pecking order will be. Gareth Southgate’s biggest aim of the season has to be to work out what combinations are most effective.
England have lost both their left-backs with Luke Shaw and Danny Rose both pulling out with injury problems. Ben Chilwell who got his debut last month at Leicester’s King Power Stadium is recalled. With two games to play in just four days, expect Southgate to shuffle his pack over the two games. Strangely this game is being played behind closed doors as punishment to Croatia for that swastika imprint on the pitch incident back in 2015. Denying Croatia their fervent home support should play in England’s favour, but this remains a tough game for England who will be desperate for revenge.
Southgate needs to learn from that semi final loss and that probably means playing Winks alongside Henderson to give England two natural passers of the ball in midfield, where Henderson looked isoltaed back in Moscow. I suspect the loss of Mandzukic will be an issue for Croatia as is blooding a new goalkeeper, for those reasons I suspect England will edge this.
Prediction: Croatia 1-2 England