England’s home game against Croatia on Sunday will be a crunch match in the UEFA Nations League.
Win, and England top Group 4 and qualify for the four-team finals in June while Croatia get relegated to League B. Lose, and it’s the other way around. A goalless draw keeps England’s League A status intact, but a score draw sends the Three Lions down, as Croatia will have a better head-to-head record on away goals.
Our friends at Football Whispers are here to take us through the key points of the game.
Keep a tight ship
With the way the permutations fall, keeping things tight at the back is essential. Gareth Southgate will know that a clean sheet assures England of staying in the top division for the next edition of the Nations League in 2020/21.
However, England’s Nations League group has been one of the highest-scoring of the competition (mostly, it must be said, thanks to the two Spain vs Croatia matches, which had 11 goals between them).
And, despite victory against the United States on Thursday, the England manager wasn’t too pleased with the team’s defensive performance.
“We were wide open,” Southgate said after the game, “and, if we do that on Sunday, we will lose.”
“If we want to be a top team we can’t get to 3-0 and not play without the ball. We have to play with intelligence right through the game.”
While England kept a clean sheet against Croatia in the empty stadium in Rijeka, they conceded twice in both matches against Spain.
Firing at the front
England’s hopes might rest with the strike force, then. England aren’t short of strikers, and have set-piece expertise to add into the mix too, of course.
There’s a small drawback in that Southgate’s side have taken the fewest shots per game of the three teams in the group, with 7.3. However, over half of these (3.7) have been on target, suggesting that they’ve been good-quality ones.
The longer that this young England side spend together, the better they’ll become as well.
“I think some of the one-touch, two-touch football around the box was really exciting,” Southgate said of the USA game. “I thought Dele [Alli] and Jesse [Lingard] were both really good in that opening period as well.
“We talk a lot about a lack of creativity in English players, but when we’re bringing on Ruben [Loftus-Cheek] and we have got Jadon [Sancho], Jesse and Dele on there, and we know there are other players coming through the system, it is an exciting period.”
Croatia relishing a crowd
However, both England’s defence and attack will have to be ready for how up for the game Croatia are sure to be. The Croats need to attack, and they have the memories of the World Cup semi-final fresh in their mind to give them confidence.
After UEFA sanctions led to England’s tie in Croatia being played behind closed doors, Southgate is aware of how much the away side will be looking forward to playing in front of a packed crowd on Sunday.
“They’ll enjoy coming to Wembley, they’ll look forward to that,” Southgate said. “We knew the game at home for them without a crowd was probably as difficult for them as it was for us.
“But coming to a full house at Wembley, they’ve got big players that will relish that challenge and we’ve got to relish that challenge as well.”
And if scorer of two goals against Spain, Tin Jedvaj, is anything to go by, Croatia are confident of a good result.
“In Russia, we proved that we could beat them without any problems and that they aren’t better than us,” he said.
“We might even be the favourites despite the fact that we are playing away. I don’t know. They are England but we believe that we can win and end the group stage on top.”
*odds subject to change
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