Given the buzz that’s surrounding Wayne Rooney’s highly anticipated appearance for England in the upcoming friendly with America, it’s easy to forget that the Three Lions are entertaining Croatia in a UEFA Nations League match this weekend.
Following England’s thrilling win in Spain last time out, the Croatia game is set to be an important match in Group A4. In contrast, the Croats will arrive at Wembley hoping for their first win of the tournament, as they seem to still be suffering from a hangover as a result of their World Cup exploits.
But how might the game play out on Sunday, and which team is likely to win at Wembley?
The Form Book
Despite the controversy surrounding Wayne Rooney’s 120th cap, England are set to arrive at Wembley in exceptional form. After all, their last Nations League game saw them stun Spain 3-2 in Seville, following a devastating first-half display of counter-attacking football.
Raheem Sterling led England’s line with distinction, scoring his first Three Lions goals for three years with a superbly taken brace. Young Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford scored a magnificent goal, while fellow forward Harry Kane also excelled on the pitch.
This followed a rather drab 0-0 draw behind closed doors in Croatia, when England struck the goalposts twice.
Croatia also struggled to impose themselves, despite naming a strong side featuring several players that competed in the World Cup final in Moscow. This has been a running theme for the Croats since the summer, as they also looked distinctly out of sorts during a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Spain at the Martinez Valero Stadium.
Who’ll be in the Line-up?
England have no significant injury worries at present, although Luke Shaw remains doubtful after arriving at training with an ankle strain.
If he’s not fit, Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell is likely to continue his run in the side, having made his debut against Croatia during the last round of fixtures.
Elsewhere, newbies Callum Wilson (Bournemouth), Lewis Dunk (Brighton) and keeper Alex McCarthy (Southampton) will all retain their place in the squad, along with Borussia Dortmund’s precocious young forward Jadon Sancho. However, it’s unlikely that any of these players will start at Wembley on Sunday, with Harry Kane expected to lead the line and Sterling hoping to continue his recent form on the international stage.
As for Croatia, they’re largely at full strength, with standout performers including Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic all expected to start.
The side are also expected to start with Ante Rebić in attack, with the striker keen to stake his place in the national side following the summer retirement of Juventus forward Mario Mandžukić. There’s no doubt that this has left the Croats a little lacking in attack – this will need to be corrected if they’re to win in London.
The Last Word – Who Will Win?
The last competitive outing between these two sides was certainly memorable, with Croatia edging out a young Three Lions side in the World Cup semi-final.
Despite taking an early lead through Kieran Trippier’s free-kick, goals from Perisic and Mandžukić saw an experienced Croatia side reach their first World cup final.
Zlatko Dalić’s side have struggled since, however, losing 4-2 to France in a topsy-turvy final and struggling to maintain any kind of form since. They looked particularly tame during the heavy defeat in Spain, while they struggled to make an impression in the recent 0-0 draw with England.
This may be a hangover from the World Cup, but there’s no doubt that Croatia are lacking a cutting edge in attack. While they have the midfield quality to dominate any side, they’re currently unable to convert this into goals.
The opposite is true for Gareth Southgate’s young and energetic side, who have carved out a niche by playing fluent counter-attacking football and pressing high up the park. They were incredibly ruthless against Spain, where they were happy to cede position and midfield control in order to penetrate their high line with direct running.
We should expect a similar gameplay here, particularly with England lacking the midfield experience or technical ability to dominate possession. However, they have a clear understanding of their strengths and should arrive at Wembley in confidence. As a result, it’s hard to imagine them not edging out Croatia on Sunday afternoon.