England’s opening game could very well go a long way to deciding the outcome of this group and it features an opponent whom they’re all too familiar with. Being one of the favourites for this tournament, England will be looking to lay down a marker here against a decent side – particularly after two limp 1-0 wins in their warm-up matches.
In the time that’s passed since the heartbreak of the semi-final in Russia three years ago, England have somewhat got their revenge over Croatia with a draw away in Rijeka and a 2-1 win at Wembley in their Nations League campaign. It’s in this opening match that they’ll really hope to pile on the pain though and aside from the final being fresh in our minds, it’s hard to make a case for the Croatia being favourites in this tie. As is normally the case with England, they head into the tournament with a strong recent record – 6 straight victories and conceding only one goal. Further to this, they’ve won 15 out of 17 of their matches at Wembley – where all 3 of their group matches – so they’re fancied to make light work of this group. On the other hand, you have Croatia who have won only 2 of their last 9 games and those were against minnows Cyprus and Malta - Sweden and Slovenia were amongst those to triumph over them. Even in both of their recent warm-up matches they failed to get a win (including against Armenia) whereas England at least got the job done albeit in unspectacular fashion.
In terms of personnel, the two of age and experience; the Croatians with an ageing team versus England who are full of youth, energy and flair. Although they have the experience of getting to a final now, the former isn’t expected to go far in this tournament as many of their key men have squads take opposing forms in terms retired and those whom they still rely on are on the wrong side of thirty years old. From the starting XI in the final in Russia, they have lost goalkeeper Subasic, centre-half Strinic, star player Rakitic and their talisman Mandzukic whilst there hasn’t been any obvious top talent come as replacements. Luka Modric remains as classy as ever even at 35 years old and if the likes of Henderson and/or Rice can nullify him pulling the strings, they should kill the main danger. Scottish fans are well aware of the quality from set pieces which Rangers’ Borna Barisic will bring however defensively, he and fellow full-back Vrsalijko of Atletico Madrid are likely to be targeted by Southgate as the latter has his fitness concerns having only played 9 games this season.
To exploit the Croatian full backs, the England boss will have a range of tools at his disposal with the abundance speed and skill he has in attacking positions. He has a wealth of top-class options up top: arguably more than any other manager at this tournament, even France. If the game plan is to begin the match with pace, then we’ll most likely see Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, who already have over 100 caps between them. If the Croatians are proving difficult to break down then we could be looking to the creativity of Champions League finalist Mason Mount, the guile of Jack Grealish or the boy it’s hoped can be “the new Gazza”, Phil Foden. On the overlap will be the wing-backs (likely Luke Shaw and Reece James or Kieran Trippier) looking to create space inside for the attackers or even supply crosses for Harry Kane themselves. This area will most probably be where the game is won or lost. If Shaw or James, for example, venture too forward then you wouldn’t bet against Modric playing a pinpoint pass into the space which they’ve left vacant.
On Sunday at least, there’s an issue at centre-back as Harry Maguire won’t be fit yet. In his replacement could be Ben White and dream story that could be for the Brighton defender. It’s already been a rollercoaster of an experience for him as a month ago not many would even have considered him a possibility to be involved at this tournament however he was included in Southgate’s preliminary squad only to be dropped and then recalled following Trent Alexander-Arnold’s injury and now could be in line to start. Southgate admitted that he may have struggled to justify picking Maguire and also Jordan Henderson if UEFA hadn’t expanded the squads to 26 players. Henderson is adamant that he is fit to start the opening match however having been out for so long there still remains a risk in selecting him as his match fitness may not be there.