What Happened Last Time These Two Teams Met?
It started as a bit of a laugh. A little bit of jolly old British irony about how ludicrous our chances of winning were. But after Kieran Trippier became the first Englishman since Gary Lineker to welly home in a World Cup semi-final, for a moment we all believed: It’s Coming Home.
The Croats were knackered from one extra-time too many, while England were the youngest, freshest team in the competition. We had the Golden Boot up front, Jordzilla in nets and only 25 minutes to hold on. Go on, remind yourself just how good life felt back in July.
Then, like that idiot who dropped a million quid on a Banksy, England fans sat and rubbed our greedy eyes in disbelief as the dream we had only just dared imagine tore itself to shreds.
In reality, Croatia were on top for all but the first 20 minutes. Once Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic had sharpened up their tools, they set about cutting England’s laughably flimsy midfield of one to pieces.
Ivan Perisic’s equaliser and Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner brought English hopes hurtling back down to Earth quicker than, as Croatia waltzed into their first ever World Cup final. This time, however, the stakes are even higher...
The Nations League
... just kidding. The Nations League was concocted to reduce meaningless friendlies but Spain look like they already have the shortcut to Euro 2020 sewn up.
Rejuvenated by their early World Cup siesta, the Spaniards beat England and marmelised Croatia in the previous round of UNL fixtures, making this game pretty much a dead rubber. Hooray!
But a semi meaningless friendly is exactly what Gareth Southgate needs right now. With England still operating levels below Europe’s elite, he will see this as a chance to throw some frighteningly talented youngsters on and see how they do where their superiors failed.
If he can’t blood his young guns against some part-time cannon-fodder, may as well test them on a side who we know, from cruel experience, are currently better than us.
If England lose, they’ll just have to qualify for the Euros the old-fashioned way: by ruthlessly walloping San Marino 2-0. For now the Nations League is something we can comfortably ignore until the bottom falls out of our campaign and we all wish we’d been paying more attention.
To make the game seem even more important, it will be played behind closed doors: some Croatian fans’ horrible, racist chickens are finally coming home to roost after causing ugly scenes all the way back in 20-chuffing-15.
God forbid the groundsman makes any fascist gestures here or the 2030 return leg will be held in an empty car park.
This punishment will of course remove the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a capacity-filled international away game. But Gareth is still looking for that statement win against top-quality opposition, so the game is definitely worth watching on TV.
They’re Under Starters Orders
Injuries, especially in midfield, have forced Southgate to look beyond his Russian heroes. The main box you have to tick to get in the squad nowadays is ‘Are You Starting Regularly For Your Club?’*
Of all the players who ticked ‘Yes,’ Fulham goalie Marcus Bettinelli’s inclusion is perhaps the most telling. The 4th(!) keeper in the squad is two years older than Pickford and has fewer clean sheets this season than a paintball battle field hospital.
The overlooked Daniel Sturridge could reasonably complain that, although he doesn’t yet have as many minutes as Bettinelli, he sure as hell does have more Goals of the Month.
*or does your name rhyme with ‘Canny Spellcheck?’
A Sparkly New Barkley
Whether it was the 12 months spent playing Scrabble with Danny Drinkwater or the arrival of the latest Italian messiah to Stamford Bridge that have helped Ross Barkley come on in leaps and bounds remains to be seen, but the improvement has been stark.
Central midfield was where this game was lost last time around, with England lacking ball-winners and forward passes. A decent shift against the world’s best duo could fire the burly scouser all the way to the middle of the first XI.
Are The Weans Ready?
Oh, hell, no. But Jordan Sancho, James Maddison and Mason Mount are all on thigh-rubbingly exciting form, Jesse and Dele are injured, and the gaffer’s got a shiny new 4-year contract. If there ever was a smart time to come off the bench, score a worldie and start up a rousing chorus of Baddiel and Skinner, this would be it.
Brave New World
With Joe Gomez pulling up large shrubs at Liverpool, his likely inclusion will herald the end of English football as we once knew it.
A jinxy back three of Gomez, Maguire and Stone would be the most progressive English idea since people in Norfolk begrudgingly stopped drowning witches in the late 1990’s.
It’s time to finally say it - RIP, Andy Carroll’s England career. My word, we’ll always have that header against Sweden to hold dear.
Running On Fumes?
No side had better-stoked engines last season than the heroic Croats, but their marathon slog to the final may be starting to catch up with them.
Their last game was a 6-0 spanking at the hands of Spain, which may just be a case of the cosmos realigning itself along its ‘Overdue That Kind Of Performance’ axis.
Tellingly, 5 players have already left their camp injured, including Marcelo Brozovic, who broke the World Cup distance covered record against England with his wildebeest-like 16,339m in Russia.
Ivan Rakitic played a record 70 games last season, but the Barça man’s rocket against Spurs showed no signs of running out of fuel.
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