Croatia will provide first real post-World Cup test for Southgate’s England

Our England-loving writer assesses the challenge of meeting Croatia so soon after that heartbreaking night at the Luzhniki Stadium…


The World Cup was a glorious time to be English.

For a few blessed weeks it had the whole nation dreaming of glory and falling for the delusion that England’s national squad might have returned to their triumphant heroism of 1966.

Sadly, however, a cold, strong dose of reality struck the country following a poaching Mario Mandžukić strike into the back of Jordan Pickford’s net.

When Croatia sent England crashing out of the 2018 World Cup and stole their chance to play in a second tournament final, they broke the hearts of millions.

Now, however, the Three Lions have a chance to inflict their own vengeful retribution.

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Well, ‘vengeful retribution’ might be a step too far. But at least they’ll have a shot at getting one over their newly formed arch-enemies with a UEFA Nations League win.

However, victory on Friday might go a little further than just nabbing the points from what is essentially a friendly fixture.

In the World Cup, Croatia were the first and last real test for Gareth Southgate’s England. With the group match against Belgium somewhat of a nonentity, Zlatko Dalić’s side were the only contenders for providing a genuine struggle.

Losing to them compounded the criticism from those who lambasted England as having had an easy time of things and so, some might argue, undermined their success in the tournament overall.

But, now they have another chance to prove themselves on the international stage.

With arguably a weaker squad – no one can doubt that Southgate is experimenting – and without the nationwide momentum of strong a World Cup run, England are certainly more disadvantaged than the last time around.

So, taking all three points against the Croats now will mean more than just three crummy points in a tournament that no one cares enough about to understand.

It’ll mean that Southgate’s side were worthy of their spot in the World Cup semi-final and deserving of the joy and victory that reaching it brought. It might even show progression; that Southgate’s tinkering with the squad is working and worthwhile.

It can ease the minds of the Englishmen previously tormented about reliving that fateful night in Moscow.

Sure, for a while, everyone external to the green and pleasant land may have grown tired of the relentless soundtrack accompanying the tournament and university campuses across the country. In fact, some within it may have felt a little jaded too.

But at least that anthem – we won’t put it in print for fear of triggering another endemic – won’t have been sung, droned and slurred in vain. At least no one will have had to have suffered when England weren’t even deserving.

By beating Croatia, immaterial as the game may initially seem, England will restore some lost honour and pride to their nation and fill the hearts of pis*ed up St George enthusiasts with the joy so fleetingly felt during summer.

They’ll show that they really can compete at the top of world football, that fighting for Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup will not be battles without a purpose.

Though, to all sporting red and white tomorrow, keep the song on mute for now. Winning will mean that England deserved their World Cup glory but, please, it’s not a pass to recreate the summer’s beer gardens.

Let’s leave ICH ‘til Qatar.

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