Croatia v England, Friday 12th October, 19:45
Despite their success at the World Cup, Croatia haven’t actually won a game over 90 minutes in six outings now. Penalties were required against Denmark and Russia, England were pegged back and taken to extra-time, while comprehensive defeats to France and Spain sandwiched a 1-1 draw with Portugal.
Les Bleus were thoroughly deserved winners in the final while Luis Enrique’s men put Croatia to the sword as they thumped them 6-0, but those two are a cut above the Three Lions and with home advantage, Zlatko Dalic’s outfit should revert to type.
The hosts’ spine has however been weakened by the retirements of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, defender Vedran Corluka and Juve striker Mario Mandzukic, but they’ll have key centre-back Dejan Lovren back after he missed the humiliation against Spain with injury.
They’ve also retained crucial central midfield duo Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, with the former’s craft and ingenuity arguably the difference when these two met in the semi-finals.
Croatia also presented England tactical problems by pushing their full-backs on at the World Cup, with England’s wing-backs unsure whether to mark the full-back or winger.
No doubt they’ll utilize the same approach with Gareth Southgate fielding the same shape as during the tournament in England’s subsequent games.
Indeed, although Spain and in particular David De Gea were fortunate to see Danny Welbeck’s late equalizer unfairly chalked off during the last international break, they dominated that encounter and used their own full-backs to similar effect.
Whether Southgate is prepared to alter his formation remains to be seen, though any change would inevitably retain the back-three that has helped bring a sense of identity to the Three Lions.
Croatia are at first glance a stunning W16-D3-L0 on home turf since November 2013, though a weak World Cup qualification group where their most dangerous opponents were Iceland has skewed the perception of dominance.
They drew with Italy, Turkey and Finland, with the Azzurri the only high grade team they’ve faced during this period, and so that unbeaten run will be severely tested.
England are W12-D7-L3 on their travels since the start of 2013, with those defeats against Spain, Germany and France.
However, given they’ve drawn in Montenegro, the Ukraine, the Rep. of Ireland, Slovenia and Scotland over this period, the stalemate appears the likely outcome. Indeed half of those 12 wins on the road came against San Marino, Estonia, Lithuania or Malta – teams vastly weaker than the World Cup finalists.
England will also be missing some midfield creativity with first choice pair Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard out through injury, and a youthful England should make do with a useful point that should set them on their way to retaining their League A status.
*all odds are subject to change