John Brewin: Croatia have become England’s reality check

Gareth Southgate brings a very young England side to Croatia tonight and John Brewin looks at what he’ll be hoping to learn from the contest…

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Croatia and England will always have Moscow and 2018’s World Cup semi-final.

It was the night football decided not to come home and instead took a detour to Zagreb on the way to its eventual destination of France. It was the sticky July night when one nation sagged as another exalted.

The country that haughtily lays claim to the game had been defeated by a small nation that only declared independence in 1991, and reminded that hosting the world’s richest league is no guarantee of a serviceable midfield.

Luka Modric, the little genius, had players like Ivan Rakitic and Matteo Kovacic around him. None of England’s fallen heroes could use the ball with such intelligence.

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In their short history, Croatia have twice issued damning reality checks to the English. A young Modric starred at Wembley in 2007 as the last bugle was sounded on a purported ‘Golden Generation” and its hopes of making the next summer’s Euros.

The lesson handed then by the Croats was not much different to that Gareth Southgate is attempting to learn from in 2018; how to marry aggression and belief with ball possession.

The England manager is into the second stage of his stewardship, a new contract taking him until the 2022 World Cup freshly signed.

He has also chosen to evolve his squad beyond the functional outfit that shuffled its way to the semis via.

With Jamie Vardy and Gary Cahill retiring from international football before they were shown the door, space has been freed up, and new faces have been called up from the ranks of England’s representative teams.

The greatest excitement is over Jadon Sancho, a star of England’s Under 20 World Cup winning team in 2017 who can play across the forward line, and who becomes only the third player after Joe Baker of Hibernian in 1959 and Owen Hargreaves of Bayern Munich in 2001 to be capped without ever having played an English league game.

Sancho skipped town on Manchester City to play for Borussia Dortmund last year and leads Europe’s top five leagues in assists.

Taking that step moved him into Southgate’s line of sight, while Phil Foden, considered at City to be Sancho’s equal in terms of talent, only made the Under 21 team, having been given just three Premier League substitute appearances.

Mason Mount, a deeper lying midfielder, has received a call for similar reasons.

Like Sancho, he is yet to play in the Premier League, but showed courage in agreeing to move to Derby on loan from parent club Chelsea; he has been one of the stars of the Championship season so far.

Mount’s presence in the squad shows off something of Southgate’s ruthlessness.

He has been rigorous in making sure that the players he calls up get first-team football, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, someone he had championed, has been a victim of that policy. ‘RLC” has made just two appearances from Chelsea bench as he struggles to win the approval of Maurizio Sarri, who wants him to be more tactically aware.

Loftus-Cheek is just 22, but the presence of Mount, 19, and Sancho (18) reminds that a young player is never the next big thing for long, and especially not if they do not play much football.

Southgate’s even-handedness, though, is revealed by a recall for Ross Barkley, whose commitment to Sarri’s disciplines has won the approval of both club and national manager. Barkley celebrated his call-up with both his first goal and assist of the season in last Sunday’s Chelsea 3-0 stroll at Southampton.

James Maddison, meanwhile, looks like another addition to the ever-lengthening list of players who have successfully made the step up from the lower divisions to the Premier League.

With a range of dead ball skills and a huge amount of self-belief, his move from Norwich to Leicester has made Foxes fans forget about Riyad Mahrez.

Though Friday’s game is supposed to be competitive, as a Nations League match, Englishmen’s main interest will lie in how much opportunity such players receive.

The match will be played in Rijeka rather than Zagreb, behind closed doors as Croatian fans are punished for marking a swastika on the pitch, making for one of those eerie spectacles where the sound of players and coaches, and perhaps some England fans peering through fences, is all that will be audible.

It will be just 93 days since Moscow, with conciliatory noises made between the teams. “You always need to respect your opponent but also have a self-belief in your team and your possibilities,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.

He spoke as someone safe in the knowledge he has players who have the measure of England’s deficiencies in midfield. Southgate’s task is working towards matching those standards.

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