England kick off their Euro 2020 campaign against Croatia in the Group D opener at Wembley on Sunday (2pm; TV: Live on BBC1).
It was against Croatia that England’s last major tournament campaign ended at the semi-final stage of the 2018 World Cup, and the bookmakers, or at least their punters, have England pegged as a side capable of making a similarly deep run at Euro 2020.
It is perhaps a bit much to have Gareth Southgate’s side listed as near equals to favourites France, but they are certainly in a group of four to six teams who have the talent to go all the way if things fall right for them. They will almost certainly progress from a group that alongside Croatia also features Czech Republic and Scotland.
Even if England do slip up on Sunday, the format of the tournament is such that there isn’t a great deal of jeopardy at this stage. The 24 starting teams will be reduced by just eight, down to 16, for the knockout stages, with both the top two and the four best third-placed teams from the six groups making it through.
Southgate and his young side will nevertheless be keen to make a good start. His 26-man selection — increased from the usual 23 due to the wear and tear on players at the end of a season that began unusually soon after the previous one – includes 15 players aged 25 or younger and just three aged 30 or over.
England warmed up for the tournament with a pair of 1-0 friendly victories over Austria and Romania. Bukayo Saka scored his first international goal in the first of those wins, while a Marcus Rashford penalty proved decisive in the second. That was a match after which Southgate made it clear that his side will need to improve defensively if they hope to go far.
The football is unlikely to be sparkling at Euro 2020, given the demands of the season that has preceded it, but England have the tools they need to prosper. They showed themselves to be very adept in creating opportunities from set-pieces at the 2018 World Cup, while they have an abundance of rapid and talented forwards to fill the positions either side of central striker and captain Harry Kane up front: Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling.
Whether they can convert that into progress to the final four or beyond remains to be seen, but England certainly look a more accomplished side at this point than their opening opponents. Croatia’s fantastic run to the final of the last World Cup has been followed by a gradual worsening of results and a concomitant slip down the FIFA rankings from their high of fourth in 2018 to 14th ahead of this tournament.
Zlatko Dalic’s side did top their qualification group for Euro 2020, winning five out of eight to beat Wales to first place. Their results have been particularly disappointing since international football resumed from its enforced break last September. They have won four, drawn two and lost seven of their 13 fixtures in that time. Their two pre-tournament friendlies yielded a 1-1 draw with Armenia and a 0-1 defeat to Belgium.
Dalic has, though, managed to hold onto his job and will have to hope that the galvanising effect of tournament football might just produce something special from an experienced squad. It features only seven players aged 25 or under and six over 30, including 35-year-old captain Luka Modric, still here despite the international retirements of contemporaries Danijel Subašić, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic.
Croatia should be fancied to make it out of the group, if only for the aforementioned relative ease of doing so. They shouldn’t be discounted from putting together a run to the quarter-finals, but anything more is likely to prove beyond them.
England were 2-1 winners when these sides last met, also at Wembley, in November 2018, with Kane and Jesse Lingard scoring the goals. They have the necessary firepower to trouble a Croatia side who have often been defensively vulnerable when they have come up against top-quality opposition over the last few years.
So the England vs Croatia betting tips’ verdict for this preview concludes with just the one wager:
- Bet on England to win in a match featuring over 1.5 goals @ 11/10 with Paddy Power.