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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Uefa Nations League: England have unfinished business against new foes Croatia

Sunday's opponents knocked England out of the World Cup semi-finals, but a victory at Wembley for either side could see the other relegated from the top tier of the Uefa Nations League

England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans after England lost their World Cup semi-final 2-1 to Croatia this summer, the same opponents they face Sunday at Wembley in the Nations League. AP Photo
England manager Gareth Southgate applauds the fans after England lost their World Cup semi-final 2-1 to Croatia this summer, the same opponents they face Sunday at Wembley in the Nations League. AP Photo

It sometimes feels as though no national team has as many enemies as England. From Argentina to Australia, Uruguay to the United States, Portugal to Poland, the global game offers untold opportunities for renewing rivalries. Many are based on history, footballing or otherwise, but even comparatively new nations can soon develop a past with England.

Croatia denied England a place in Euro 2008, their 2007 victory at Wembley leaving Steve McClaren branded “the wally with the brolly” and out of a job. They prevented them from reaching the 2018 World Cup final and one gloomy prognosis is that England may never get within 23 minutes of another again.

Gareth Southgate is too diplomatic to shape a rematch as an opportunity for revenge but Croatia have the chance to complete a hat-trick. They could relegate England from the top tier of the Uefa Nations League. Southgate’s side could inflict the same fate on the runners-up in Russia. Either could yet win the tournament itself. The permutations are such that a score draw demotes England, but a goalless draw sends Croatia down. Each could finish first, second or third in Group 4.

Yet it is not just about the emotive elements, but the evolutionary. Croatia were the only team to unlock Southgate’s 3-3-2-2 formation in the World Cup, moving their full-backs forward and establishing midfield dominance in the second half in Moscow. Last month in Rijeka, Southgate ditched that shape and unveiled a 4-3-3 system that, after a stalemate, helped facilitate the historic win in Spain.

If it showed an agility of mind, a willingness to jettison one excellent idea rather than setting it in stone, it also changed dynamics within the squad. So did the victory over Spain, secure by goals from Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, who were competing for one position in Southgate’s former formation. It was an accomplished by a midfield of Eric Dier, Harry Winks and Ross Barkley, not the World Cup trio of Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard.

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Each was unavailable then and it is fit again now. It prompts questions about the new pecking order, though. It was a largely second-string side that beat the United States 3-0 on Thursday, but Winks, Alli and Lingard, who scored spectacularly, all started. Dier and Henderson, who have often competed for one place, came on together. It perhaps points to Southgate fielding the two defensive midfielders together, with Barkley ahead of them.

Others may have different kinds of points to prove. Kyle Walker and John Stones could have done better for Mario Mandzukic’s semi-final winner. Walker should at least benefit from a change that enables him to operate in his preferred position at right-back, though Trent Alexander-Arnold’s performance against the USA showcased one growing threat to his position.

Full-backs have a particular pertinence in this fixture. Sime Vrsaljko was arguably the man of the match in the semi-final. Tin Jedvaj, the other full-back, had not scored in his first 17 internationals. The Bayer Leverkusen man then struck twice, including the injury-time winner, against Spain on Thursday. “They are back on form to be where they should be because they are a top-five team in the world,” England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford told Sky Sports.

Yet Jedvaj owed his place in the team to Ivan Strinic’s heart problem. It epitomised the improbability of Croatia’s rise and their resourcefulness that the stand-in turned match-winner. Each will be required again. Ivan Rakitic will miss out with a thigh injury. Mandzukic and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic retired from international football after the World Cup.

“They have got players of the highest quality,” noted Southgate, though there should be a finite number that a country of just 4.5 million people can produce. Nevertheless, Wayne Rooney’s valedictory England appearance now seems to have a greater pertinence. Perhaps his finest international display came in Euro 2004’s 4-2 triumph over Croatia. Since then, the Theo Walcott-inspired 4-1 victory win in Zagreb in 2008 felt a rare example of a competitive win over a major side. Until England beat Spain last month.

"We know we are capable of beating the top teams,” Pickford said. But, as the World Cup semi-final showed, England have not done it often enough. They have unfinished business.