This week will see another round of UEFA Nations League fixtures, with the Three Lions looking to bounce back from their 2-1 defeat against Spain in the opening game.
To achieve this objective, they’ll need to overcome a Croatian side that conquered England in the semi-finals at the World Cup, while coping with the fact that the match is scheduled to take place behind closed doors.
This is because the Croats are serving the second part of a two-game punishment for a racial gesture that was made before a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy, which has also seen the side deducted one point from their 2020 European Championship qualifying campaign.
In this article, we’ll preview this clash while asking whether England can slay the ghosts of their World Cup disappointments.
Form and background
The most recent meeting between the two sides remains fresh in the memory, with Croatia beating England 2-1 in extra-time to reach their first World Cup final.
The Three Lions’ bid to reach their first final since 1966 ended in glorious failure, despite Gareth Southgate’s men taking an early lead through Kieran Trippier’s precise free-kick just five minutes in.
England seemed to tire and buckle under the weight of expectation as the game wore on, however, as Southgate’s young side saw their lead overturned by Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner.
England’s opening Nations League game hardly offered any consolation either, as they were largely outclassed by a bright Spanish side at Wembley. Despite taking the lead against the run of play through Marcus Rashford’s strike, close range finished from Saul Niguez and Rodrigo gave the Spanish a deserved lead at half-time.
They largely took control from this moment, despite the fact that Danny Welbeck had a last-minute equaliser controversially ruled out for a perceived foul on David de Gea.
While England may not be entering the match in the best form, Croatia also appear to have suffered a hangover from their World Cup final defeat at the hands of France.
This was evident when they took on Spain during the second round of UEFA Nations League figures in September, as Croatia were thrashed 6-0 at the Estadio Martinez Valero.
Despite putting out a relatively weakened side, Spain’s young stars shone in Elche, with the youthful trio of Niguez, Marco Asensio and Isco all taking centre stage. It was a bullet header by Atletico Madrid’s Niguez’ that got the ball rolling in the 24th minute, before Real’s Asensio thrashed in a brilliant second just nine minutes later.
He added another in the 35th minutes, with Rodrigo, Sergio Ramos and Isco adding further goals in the second half.
With this in mind, it’s likely that both teams will start the game in relatively poor form, while the lack of atmosphere may also contribute to a difficult match.
How will the sides line up?
As for the starting line-ups, there will be a host of familiar faces starting for both sides on Thursday.
The Three Lions are without Luke Shaw and James Tarkowski, who both withdrew from the squad following the latest round of Premier League action. They’ll join World Cup stars Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard on the long-term injured list, creating a potential opportunity for Chelsea’s Ross Barkley to start.
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford is also expected to start to the left of Harry Kane in attack, while fans will be eager to see whether Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, Chelsea’s Mason Mount and Leicester City’s James Maddison get some game time in Croatia.
As for the Croats, leading lights such as Luka Modric, Perisic, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic are all expected to start. In fact, we should expect to see a strong Croatia side take the field on Thursday, while Ivan Santini will also be hoping to score his very first international goal in attack.
Who will prevail?
The bookies are largely split on the outcome, with England currently quoted as the narrow favourites at 7/4.
In contrast, Croatia can be backed at odds of around 17/10, with the draw arguably offering the most likely option at a price of 21/10.
As in the World cup semi-final, the outcome may well be determined in the midfield area, where Modric and Rakitic dominated as the game wore on in Moscow.
It will be interesting to see whether Southgate provides Jordan Henderson with the necessary support in the centre of the park, with attacking outlets such as Barkley and Maddison potentially providing some much needed bodies in this area.
If the Three Lions are outgunned in midfield, they’ll need to rely on pacey counter-attacks and the movement of Rashford and Sterling in the final third.
But, if England cannot starve Croatia’s midfield playmakers of the ball, it could be a long evening in front of a silent, empty stadium.