A Tale of Two Semi-Finalists: Can England Wreak Revenge on Croatia?
November 16, 2018
Remember the World Cup? That glorious time when the sun always shined, beer gardens were always full, and the whole nation was unified under the mantra ‘it’s coming home’. Then it ended as quickly as it began. The rain returned, and we were left in agonising disappointment, instead of the envisioned bliss we had hoped for.
There’s no time for sentiment in football though and now England go again in a new competition against the same foes. England vs Croatia is the biggest tie in the Nations League so far, with success and relegation both in the balance. There’s the feeling that England haven’t quite recaptured the magic spirit yet, but victory on Sunday will go a long way to building that up again.
Form or History?
It’s a game of extremes this Sunday, with the prospect of relegation just as likely as progressing to the finals. An England win would see them through to the latter stages of the competition next summer at the expense of Croatia and Spain, but defeat or even a score draw will see Southgate’s men unceremoniously relegated to dreaded League B. Their opponents on the day have caused a stir so far, with Croatia’s 3-2 win over Spain blowing the group wide open last time out. And though that result has given renewed hope for England’s Nations League campaign, it’s also reiterated the quality in their side.
While the Three Lions have definitely carried on their momentum from the World Cup, they shouldn’t go into the match viewing themselves as favourites. Their preparation has been good but they’ll need to dig deep if they want to win.
England go into the game on the back of a 3-0 victory over the USA, which marked the last international game for Three Lions legend Wayne Rooney but they were sloppy in parts and stronger opposition will punish them if the same mistakes are made. The standard of play will be much higher this time around and England will have to be better than good if they want to win.
What Does Victory Mean for England?
What will success in this competition look like for England? Of course, the aim is to win the title, but we’re not the strongest side in the competition. If we struggle against teams like Croatia, who are good but not an elite side, what happens when we come up against the France or the Belgium’s of the world. The expectation shouldn’t be winning the competition, but relegation from the group would surely be considered a failure from Southgate’s point of view.
Perhaps their goal should be centred around the performances rather than the results. A win against Croatia will certainly be good for both the players and fans, but it is more about building momentum for the next international tournament rather than the Nations League itself. If you consider England’s World Cup campaign, the results painted a much prettier picture than the actual performances. Most of our threat came from set plays, so this might be a concern against some of the bigger teams.
The saying ‘a trophy’s a trophy’ is among the most common in the sport, but frequency is no indicator of truth. The specific trophy you win and the manner in which you win it matter considerably. This is better illustrated at club level. Take Manchester City, for example, manager Manuel Pellegrini won both the Capital One Cup and the Premier League in his first season, and yet, has a mixed reputation in the fanbase. Pep Guardiola won the same trophies in his second season last year and is revered by City fans.
It isn’t an exact analogy, but Southgate has a chance to leave a similar legacy with England. He’s already endeared himself massively to the nation’s fanbase but he needs to build on this. The football feels different, the build-up to these matches more positive and it all amounts to a welcome breath of fresh air after years of the same stale mediocrity. Triumph in the Nations League won’t ever be as good as winning a World Cup, but confidence is key and the momentum gained from success in the tournament can be translated to future tests.
Building for the future
One of the biggest differences I can see in this England team and their approach to the competition is that the onus now seems to be on long-term development rather than immediate success. Southgate has constantly picked players on form, regardless of club, stature or age, and has begun the process of moulding them into a footballing philosophy.
The good news is that there has been a clear progression since the summer. The results have been good, the team is scoring goals and the squad harmony is the best it’s been in years. Internationals have often felt more of a chore than a pleasure, we watch England because we have to, not because we want to.
After years of flinging the latest teen prodigy into the team or relying on the experience of ageing stars, it’s refreshing to see players from across the table stepping up, showing what they can bring to this squad. We’re starting to reap the rewards now too, with the likes of Trippier and John Stones now mainstays in the side, despite initial grumblings about their selections.
The recent match against the USA saw Callum Wilson score in what was an impressive debut for the Bournemouth striker. He doesn’t just add another dimension to our attack but shows that there are players capable of doing well for England outside of the traditional elite.
The Nations League doesn’t have the prestige or scope of the World Cup, but it is one of the best chances for England to win their first international honour since the fabled team of 1966. This fixture might not carry the weight nor stakes of the semi-final that broke our nations collective heart, but it can give us some vengeance for that match as well as help to build the foundations for future success.
Cyrus has been writing about sports and many other topics for major publications over the past five years. Now working in digital marketing, he spends his days arguing over football and dreaming of his beloved Manchester City winning the champions league.