England finally kick off their Euro 2020 campaign with a clash against Croatia at Wembley on Sunday at 2pm (UK time).
The Three Lions are among the hotly tipped favourites for this summer’s continental showpiece and will be eager to get off to the best possible start on home soil.
They face a Croatia side nowhere near as fancied as they were at the 2018 World Cup, where they beat Gareth Southgate’s men to reach the final before ultimately losing out to France. But Zlatko Dalic’s side is still packed full of seasoned internationals and supremely talented players. Southgate will not be taking them lightly.
Euro 2020 favourites with William Hill…
- France – 9/2
- England – 5/1
- Belgium – 6/1
- Portugal – 8/1
- Spain – 8/1
- Germany – 8/1
- Italy – 8/1
(Odds correct at the time of writing. 18+ only. BeGambleAware.org)
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So, what can we expect from this crucial Group D opener? Here are five things we think might happen including possible line-ups and scoreline predictions.
1. England predicted XI
The big debate ahead of this tournament has been whether Southgate will go with the three-man defence that served him so well in Russia, or something more progressive like the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations we’ve seen recently.
Either way, Jordan Pickford is his preferred goalkeeper and enters the Euros following a solid end to the season with Everton, which should boost his confidence after a tough couple of years.
Even with Harry Maguire sidelined, Southgate seems likely to favour the 4-2-3-1 set-up from pre-tournament friendlies against Austria and Romania. John Stones should come into the starting XI after a fine season with Manchester City and will likely be partnered by Tyrone Mings to add balance with his left foot. It’ll be Stones’ job to anchor this defence, especially given Mings’ shaky performances across the two friendlies.
Along with Stones, Kyle Walker’s pace and forward-thinking can give England thrust from right-back. Reece James is another good option in that sense but is less experienced, while Kieran Trippier could be very useful should England look to protect the ball and get crosses into the box. On the left, it’s a toss-up between Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw, though the latter has enjoyed a wonderful club campaign and seems to have established himself in recent friendlies.
A central midfield pairing of Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips should provide enough defensive solidity and security in possession to keep the likes of Modric and Brozovic at bay. And more importantly, the pair will also be able to screen the middle of England’s defence, which is still lacking in leadership without Maguire. Ahead of them, Mason Mount will operate as the playmaker, connecting defence to attack while helping the double-pivot behind him to stifle the Croatian midfield.
Harry Kane will obviously operate as the central striker. To his right, we’ll probably see Phil Foden cutting inside onto his left foot, while Raheem Sterling has often been Southgate’s preferred forward. This line-up would be harsh on Jack Grealish, who has been excellent for Aston Villa and in the two recent friendlies. But he, Marcus Rashford (who is carrying injuries), and Jadon Sancho would offer incredible options from the bench. The latter will also feel a little aggrieved to miss out on the starting XI after a fine season with Borussia Dortmund.
— Chris Smith ⚽✍️ (@CJSmith91) June 4, 2021
2. Croatia predicted XI
The personnel may have changed somewhat but Dalic will stick with the 4-3-3 system that has served him so well in recent years, allowing him to cram in as many of those world-class midfielders as possible. A starting trio of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic is as good as any in world football and has enough quality to take a stranglehold on any match if the opposition aren’t careful.
Looking further back for a moment, Dominik Livakovic should take his place between the sticks after making the second-highest number of saves in the Europa League (39) and performing some heroics as Dinamo Zagreb beat Tottenham Hotspur in the last 16.
Sime Vrsaljko will start at right-back after winning a title with Atletico Madrid, albeit while playing a bit-part role with just nine La Liga appearances. Borna Barisic played a huge part in Rangers’ Scottish Premiership win and run into the Europa League knockout rounds, grabbing four goals and eight assists in 40 appearances while putting in some superb defensive performances. The left-back spot will almost certainly be his. Vrsaljko and Barisic will likely flank a centre-back pairing of Domagoj Vida and Duje Caleta-Car, combing the big-game experience and robustness of the former with the mobility and ball-playing prowess of the latter.
Ante Rebic on the right and Ivan Perisic on the left offer a blend of industry and trickery down the flanks. Perisic, of course, scored the 68th-minute equaliser as Croatia came from 1-0 down to beat England 2-1 at the 2018 World Cup semi-final.
It’ll be their job to dovetail off Bruno Petkovic, who scored 14 goals across all competitions for Dinamo Zagreb this season. Though a decent finisher, Petkovic is far better at holding up play and he’ll look to take the ball from Croatia’s talented midfielders, allowing their full-backs and wingers to get forward into dangerous positions. He’ll certainly offer a stern physical test to England’s potentially suspect backline.
3. Harry Kane to make Golden Boot statement
Three years ago, Harry Kane fired England all the way to fourth place at the World Cup in Russia with six goals. Though his strikes involved a mixture of penalties and good fortune, it was enough to make him the first Englishman to win a World Cup Golden Boot since Gary Linekar in 1986.
This summer, he heads to the Euros fresh from scoring 23 goals in 35 appearances to win the Premier League Golden Boot for the third time while, across all competitions, he found the net 33 times in 49 games. In short, Golden Boots are in his nature and when Kane gets on a roll, there’s little stopping him.
The memory of England’s loss to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final in 2018, during which Kane missed a great opportunity to make it 2-0 where he should have squared the ball for Raheem Sterling, will still burn bright in his mind. But since then, the 27-year-old has exacted a little revenge on Dalic’s side, sliding in a Chilwell free-kick to complete a 2-1 comeback win that sealed the Three Lions’ place in the inaugural Uefa Nations League final. Demons banished?
It was Kane’s late header that got England off and running against Tunisia in 2018 and, given the form he heads into this tournament in, coupled with the point he’ll feel he still has to prove against Croatia, you’d do well to back him to be the catalyst again.
Harry Kane to score first vs Croatia is priced at 13/5 with William Hill
4. Modric the orchestrator
While Kane was the Golden Boot winner, Luka Modric took home the Golden Ball award in 2018 as the World Cup’s best player. The veteran midfielder was instrumental in getting Croatia to the final, orchestrating play and dictating the tempo of matches with unmatched ease and composure. England were on the sharp edge of Modric’s wizardry in the semi-final as the Real Madrid man took a vice-like grip on the match to push the Three Lions back.
Following Croatia’s recent 1-0 friendly defeat to Belgium, Dalic lamented his side’s lack of penetration, calling on them to play with more verticality and forward momentum.
“We need more vertical passes, shots on goal, and players making runs into the penalty area,” he said. “There were segments I didn’t like against Belgium but I’ll keep that for the locker room and sort it out with the players.”
If penetrative passing is what Dalic wants, then he needs to ensure Modric is on the ball as much as possible. Three years ago in Russia, Modric completed more passes into the final third (134) and through balls (2) than any other Croatian player. Even at 35 years old, the midfielder repeated those achievements for Real Madrid in La Liga this season with totals of 667 and eight, respectively.
If Modric gets a grip of this game, then Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic will work in tandem to dominate possession and that could be how Croatia once again get the better of the Three Lions.
5. Score prediction
All told, both sides have moved in slightly contrasting directions since their 2018 World Cup semi-final meeting.
Where expectations were low in Russia, England head into the Euros as one of the favourites thanks to their blend of youth, established stars and immense technical talent. The likes of Foden, Grealish and Mount make this a far more competent footballing side than three years ago.
And while Croatia are by no means out of the running, indeed remaining dark horses for this tournament, there’s no doubting they’re weakened by the loss of quality and tournament experience once offered by the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic.
It’ll undoubtedly be a close affair. But one from which England should emerge victorious, sending out an early statement of intent to the rest of Europe.
England 2-1 Croatia is priced at 15/2 with William Hill