England vs Croatia: Why nation should not expect fireworks in Euros opener

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England vs Croatia: Why nation should not expect fireworks in Euros opener
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 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Croatia's visit to Wembley is framed by the World Cup semi-final of three years ago, so Sunday's meeting naturally has the feel of a revenge mission for England.

Gareth Southgate's squad is much-improved from Russia and at least five of the starting XI will surely be different, while Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier are now in their prime.

Croatia's golden generation, meanwhile, have mostly slipped into international retirement and there will be no Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and others, although their unceasing metronome, Luka Modric, is the same as he ever was.

After Trippier's free-kick sent thousands of pints skyward on that balmy evening in July 2018, the story of England's semi-final defeat was an all-too-familiar struggle to keep possession away from Croatia's superior technicians.

With the emergence of Mason Mount, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, Southgate can now call on a raft of players capable of holding onto the ball and hurting their opponents in front of 22,500 supporters at the national stadium.

Sunday's game, therefore, seems the perfect opportunity for England to illustrate how far they have come since Russia and lay down a Euros marker.

But while it is tempting to demand a strong start, expectation should be tempered.

The Euros are more marathon than a sprint and there are particular reasons to think that Southgate's England will prove a slow burner. The manager has already described the build-up as his toughest period in the job, having been forced to play both warm-up matches without all seven players from Champions League finalists Manchester City and Chelsea.

After giving his players a day off following last Sunday's unconvincing win over Romania at Middlesbrough, Southgate has only had five full training days with the bulk of his squad, compared to 15 in the build-up to the last World Cup.

"This is the different challenge of international football," Southgate said this week. "You don't ever quite get to the level a club team can because you are not working through a pre-season or working every day on a training ground between matches as you would at a club.

"But over a period of time we have always had teams that have had clear patterns of play and the responsibility without the ball is pretty clear. We will make sure we have got them in the best possible place for Sunday."

After such a disrupted period of preparation, it would be a surprise if England were at their slickest from the outset and Southgate is unlikely to have fine-tuned his side until later on in the tournament.

England also go into the finals with the second-youngest squad at the Euros and a host of players will be making their tournament bows on Sunday.

It is easy to forget that the likes of Mount and Rice are still just 22, Reece James 21 and Bellingham, who could be a surprise starter in midfield, 17.

Asked if the squad was more likely to peak later in the tournament, Chelsea defender James said: "Definitely. The more you play together, the stronger we're going to get as a team and as a group. I think time will only help and benefit us to help us grow."

 (PA)
(PA)

Of the last five winners of the European Championship, only the peerless 2008 edition of Spain won all three of their group games and most impressive sides over recent years have tended to grow into the tournament, peaking in the latter stages.

A slower-than-anticipated start against Croatia would be no reason to hit the panic button, especially with experienced pair Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire unlikely to return until the final group match or the knockout stages.

There is also the question of pressure and both sides will be faced with different expectations to three years ago, with England rightly considered among the favourites, particularly given the possibility of home advantage from the semi-final onwards, while a brave failure is no longer acceptable for Croatia after their heroics in Russia.

Despite England's circumstances, Southgate is adopting a no-excuses culture and acknowledged that England's St George's Park base gives them an edge over some opponents.

"We knew our build-up was more complicated than most, but some of the teams are having to change base," he said. "So everyone has their issues, we are not unique in that."

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