Sunday sees England walk out at Wembley as they begin their bid finally to end the long wait for a second major international trophy. Taking on Croatia, who famously knocked England out of the World Cup in Russia three years ago, will be the first task for Gareth Southgate’s new-look squad (9am ET).
Biggest opportunity yet?
Over the years, England have had some grand opportunities to do what the boys of 1966 did at Wembley in the World Cup all those years ago. At Italia 90, with some of the finest talent in world football in their ranks, they were close, while the so-called golden generation of the early and mid-2000’s never quite had it in them to go all the way. Then there was 2018, far from England’s most exciting set of players, but with a team-togetherness, they once again flirted with success.
Those opportunities came and went, but now the English look to have what is perhaps their biggest opportunity of all time. With creative-type flair players such as Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho, the likes of which England needed for so long, alongside the talismanic Harry Kane, who is arguably the best striker in world football, the Three Lions have a huge chance, especially as this is essentially a tournament on home soil. If England were to reach the final, only one of their seven matches would be played outside of London. The time is very much now for the team led by the man in the iconic waistcoat.
Form leading in
With the squad that will compete at this tournament, England have played just two matches. Many of the players involved featured regularly in competitive World Cup qualifiers earlier in the year. The Three Lions will arrive at this tournament having won five out of five in 2021. They have not exactly played teams of the highest calibre, with their most notable victory coming against Poland, who they beat by only a single goal for a 2-1 scoreline.
The two friendlies leading up to this fixture saw England beat both Romania and Austria by a goal to nil. Back-to-back clean sheets is a real positive ahead of tournament football, though it is not as if England completely nullified either of their recent opponents, while it’s slightly worrying that they weren’t able to do more offensively. That said, we probably shouldn’t take too much from a pair of friendlies on the eve of a big competition.
Being this is a match at Wembley, England obviously come into this fixture as favorites with the sportsbooks, quite heavy favourites at that, but Croatia are no mugs. Not only did they dump England out of the World Cup in Russia three years ago, but they made reasonably light work of qualifying for this tournament and come here off the back off a respectable effort against a Belgium team that is ranked number one in the world right now. They lost that game by a goal to nil, but few sides have the majority share of possession against the Red Devils, while they certainly proved that they can be a thorn in the side of the best.
In Croatia, England have an opponent that they know plenty about. Some of the current England squad will have vivid and painful memories of being on that pitch in Moscow when Croatia booked their place in the World Cup final at England’s expense. Since that night in Luzhniki Arena, the pair have faced off twice. At the back end of 2018, the pair drew 0-0 in Croatia in the UEFA Nations League, before England came from behind to win by two goals to one at Wembley in the same competition.
What’s the best bet?
With the likes of Grealish, Mount, Foden and Sancho, none of whom were in Russia three years ago, England have the creativity and attacking nous that they lacked in that semi-final in Moscow, which bodes well for the hosts.
Croatia don’t exactly lack final-third talent, but they have much the same side as they did three years ago, so there shouldn’t be many surprises, nor should we expect too many fireworks from the “visitors”.
Croatia like to dominate the ball and are good in possession; the likes of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic see to that, but they are likely to adopt a cautious approach against England, much as they did in both Nations League games. If we combine this with England’s new-found attacking talent, then a home win is easy to envisage.
Where’s the bet? The current lines make a straight bet on the England win unappealing, though at odds of +105, ‘England to Win & Under 3.5 Goals’ looks good. For starters, less than four goals have been scored in nine of the pair’s last ten matches combined, while the Three Lions have scored more than twice in none of their last four wins. Add in Croatia’s lack of ‘goals for’ recently, as they scored just once against Armenia and failed to find the net against Belgium, and the above bet starts to really stand out as an option.
All things considered, England now have the tools to break down the Croats, who’ve scored more than once in just one of their five matches in 2021, two of which saw them fail to notch. However, the opposition certainly have it within them to avoid a battering, as we saw against the Belgians recently, so siding with a relatively low-key England win is the way to play. So these are the England vs Croatia predictions for this preview: