Benedict Spence

The secret to beating Croatia

The secret to beating Croatia
Image: Gareth Southgate (Getty)
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First things first: don’t get your hopes up. England don’t have a bad team. In fact, this year they’re pretty good; not quite the 'golden generation' of 2006, but good enough to win the tournament. That very fact ought to sound a note of caution: we’ve been down this weary road before. After the year we’ve had, we could use something to celebrate, but another crushing disappointment after foolishly allowing ourselves to believe would be too much. 

With that in mind, it would be jolly sporting of England if they didn’t win their opening game too easily. No 7-0 demolition jobs for us, thanks; what we need is a cagey, narrow win, or maybe even a credible draw, full of pluck, blood and thunder, to set us off on the right path: under no illusions. 

Fortunately, the opening game is Croatia. Ah, Croatia. Just the name evokes nausea. The rabble that stopped England qualifying for the Euros in 2008, and, at the last World Cup, denied Gareth Southgate’s happy band of Englishmen their God-given right to have another crack at the French. The good news: Mario Mandzukic, whose goal knocked England out three years ago, has retired, as has midfield maestro Ivan Rakitic. The bad news? The rest are still around; a little older, a little wiser, and still a mean bunch of Balkan hard-cases. 

Marcelo Brozovic and Matteo Kovacic run the midfield, creating space for Luka Modric, Real Madrid’s Ballon d’Or winner (the big, shiny ‘here be the best player in the world’ award) to ping the ball left, right and centre. Famously, defenders hate it when you ping it left and right, but centre? That’s basically witchcraft, and were it not for the recent introduction of video replay, would necessitate Modric being put to death at the hands (well, feet) of Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips. Truly, VAR ruins everyone’s fun. But Phillips (or whoever) will have to stop him somehow. 

In defence, Duje Caleta-Car is hyper-mobile and can initiate phases of play from deep (he is good at running with the ball and kicking the ball). Defender Dejan Lovren is also back for another round — a man with the technical attributes of barbed wire — and alongside him is Domagoj Vida, who made a name for himself at the World Cup by merrily shouting “Glory to Ukraine” in front of the world after the semi final in Moscow. They aren’t easily intimidated, in other words. How are England to overcome the serried ranks of menacing Croats? Their best defender (Liverpool’s Joe Gomez) best creator (Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold) and best midfielder (Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson) are all injured; Liverpool presumably furloughed their medical team last year. 

Fortunately, in the final third of the pitch, England have a starry array of talent unmatched by anyone bar France. All eyes will fall on Harry Kane, the most English of Englishmen, to provide the focal point of the attack. Getting the ball to him from out wide will be the key; Kane is not just a top goalscorer, but a provider for the rest of the team, too. The fun comes with who will play around him; Southgate will probably choose Marcus Rashford down one side, and Raheem Sterling the other. 

But the better options are the inexperienced ones. Jadon Sancho is perhaps the third best young forward in the world at the moment — so naturally, he won’t start. Jack Grealish, of Aston Villa, has been compared to Italian great Francesco Totti — and not just because he’s loyal to his hometown club, has a thick regional accent, socks round his ankles and an Alice band in his hair. Manchester City’s impish youngster Phil Foden, meanwhile, has decided to bleach his in tribute to Paul Gascoigne at Euro ’96. Some might say that’s brash, even if Pep Guardiola has called him ‘the most talented player I’ve ever seen’. The trio offer England wonderful options in attack; it would be refreshing if Southgate made use of them. 

Given Croatia’s strength in the middle of the pitch, England’s chances of victory will rely on isolating the fullbacks and making use of Kane’s presence to draw out the defence, creating space for their faster forwards to exploit. Even then, with Croatia’s midfield tanks providing a shield, it won’t be easy.

But, now I’ve said that, England will inevitably romp home and batter their hapless opponents 4-0, getting all our hopes up, before the inevitable exit at the hands of someone unexpected like Finland or Hungary.