With everything still on the line, England and Croatia meet in the decisive match of their UEFA Nations League group at Wembley on Sunday (14:00 GMT, live on Sky Sports).
Ahead of the final fixture, it is Spain who top Group 4, with six points from victories over England and Croatia in September that had seemed to set them up to win it. England and Croatia have four points apiece from a win each over Spain and a draw between them.
That leaves a number of possibilities open. Either England or Croatia would win the group and qualify for the finals tournament next summer by securing victory. The losing team would then finish bottom and suffer relegation to League B for the 2020-21 competition. A goalless draw would see England second and Croatia bottom; a score draw, the reverse.
The opportunity to win the group was not one that England necessarily thought they would have coming into the final match day. Now that it has presented itself, they will be keen to take it. The value of the UEFA Nations League is questionable, but topping a group featuring Croatia and Spain would nevertheless represent an impressive achievement.
Gareth Southgate’s side warmed up for the group decider with a relatively comfortable 3-0 friendly win over the United States on Thursday. First-half goals from Jesse Lingard and Trent Alexander-Arnold and a debut strike from Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson after the break saw them triumph. It was a match in which 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho got his first start, and Lewis Dunk and Alex McCarthy joined Wilson in earning their first caps.
Southgate afterwards made it clear that he was not entirely happy with his side’s second-half performance and warned that similar openness would be punished by Croatia. It was otherwise another solid display that suggested the switch from a three-man defensive system to a 4-3-3 is one that will bear fruit for England going forward.
There is plenty of promise in this squad and more, perhaps, to come given that England won both the European Under-19 Championship and the Under-20 World Cup last year. Southgate has done a very good job of refreshing things following the country’s group-stage exit from the 2014 World Cup, and even if certain weaknesses remain, England are in much better shape than many would have imagined possible.
Croatia were, of course, the team who prevented England making it all the way through to the World Cup final in Russia. They suffered a bit of comedown afterwards, with the physical and mental exertion taking its toll on a squad featuring some players for whom that was likely their best shot at glory. A 0-6 defeat away to Spain in September was the low point, but their recovery was made concrete by a 3-2 win at home to the same opposition on Thursday.
After a goalless first half, the match exploded into life after the break. Andrej Kramaric and Tim Jedvaj twice gave Croatia the lead, only for Spain to hit back on both occasions. Just as it seemed the match was heading for a draw, substitute Josip Brekalo made space for a shot inside the area, and when it was saved, Jedvaj was on hand to prod home the rebound.
Zlatko Dalic has not made sweeping changes to his squad since the World Cup. The only notable absentees are goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and striker Mario Mandzukic, both of whom have now retired from international football. He seems content to lean on his experienced core, and so the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic remain key. Younger players, such as the aforementioned Brekalo, will be eased in as necessary.
With motivation now restored, that makes Croatia dangerous opponents for England on Sunday, but not insuperable ones. In Mandzukic’s absence, they lack a clear goal threat at centre-forward. If England can establish more control in midfield than they had in their World Cup semi-final defeat, they certainly have the necessary pace in attacking areas to cause a relatively slow Croatian defence some problems.
England therefore have a solid chance of ending an excellent year by topping their UEFA Nations League group with victory over Croatia at Wembley.
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