June 12, 2021

England “in a different moment” as Gareth Southgate’s side plot Croatia revenge

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Gareth Southgate must rewrite the history books in the Euros this summer.

Incredibly, England have never won an opening Group fixture in their eight previous tournaments dating back 41 years.

They have, of course, never been crowned European champions and the weight of expectation will sit heavily on the players’ shoulders at Wembley on Sunday.

This is England’s “homecoming” tournament, they are blessed with the best squad of players since the Golden Generation and not since Euro 96 have hopes been this high.

The likes of Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Declan Rice are the future with Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling well established from the 2018 World Cup.



England's young side can make history with a win over Croatia on Sunday
England’s young side can make history with a win over Croatia on Sunday

This is arguably the best England have been placed for a generation to seize the momentum and feel good factor among the fans at Wembley.

Three Lions boss Southgate made us fall back in love with the national team in Russia three years ago when it was an unexpected journey to the semi finals which ended in defeat to Croatia.

Now, with perfect symmetry, they face their World Cup nemesis again on Sunday and the dynamic of Group D means defeat would really leave England facing an even bigger test of nerves on the Battle of Britain with Scotland on June 18.

That is why England must buck the trend, get off to a good start and set the mood for the summer. Three years ago it was a fairytale. This time, England expects. It is a very different build-up.

England assistant boss Steve Holland does, however, believe this group has “big match” experience even if it is a younger set of players than three years ago while they are also adapting to tournament life and the training base.

Holland said: “We are now in a different moment. We also have a lot of younger players who are coming from our top clubs. I already mentioned the Champions League final.



Steve Holland is confident England's players will be stronger because of their World Cup heartacheSteve Holland is confident England's players will be stronger because of their World Cup heartache
Steve Holland is confident England’s players will be stronger because of their World Cup heartache

“The team in Russia was fairly inexperienced. This will be a younger team in terms of actual statistics of age. I think the core of that group should be better as a consequence of Russia.

“We have shown great faith in the guys from an early age and the challenge is there for them to make the next step. If they can make the next step, there is no reason to believe we should not be in a better position.”

Sunday also pits England against Croatia again. It is a different Croatia team now, a younger generation and yet their strength still lies in midfield with the likes of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovacic which is perhaps why England may go for a 4-3-3 formation.

England need strength in the middle of the pitch and if one lesson was learned from that heartbreaking semi final defeat then it was about game management and also being able to tweak and adjust to not be overrun in midfield.

That has to be Southgate’s target as a manager rather than be seen talking about the players evolving… he has to improve as a manager.

Holland said: “It’s one of the biggest challenges we face, how we handle those three midfield players in particular, but we have good players of our own in that area. I think it’s choosing the moment. It’s intelligence for sure.

“What I think the next challenge for us is to build a team that can consistently go close and then maybe we have the foundation to believe this is our time. That could be now. Certainly a pressure we are happy to have.

“There is not a conversation in the building behind us that is not based on creating the feeling that to win is possible. That is our objective and that is what we will give everything to achieve.”

Southgate has probably got the safest job in international football, he is untouchable ahead of the 2022 World Cup but equally, to keep his own upward trajectory going, you cannot underestimate the importance of a good start.

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