As Group 4 of League A enters its final game, any one of the three sides in it could finish on top and progress to the semi-finals, while either of these sides could end this stage bottom of the group and relegated to League A. As an example of how finely-balanced things are, England could be leading 1-0 in time added on, and on target to win the group. If Croatia then equalised with the last kick of the ball, Gareth Southgate would be familiarising himself with potential opposition along the lines of Finland, Bulgaria and suchlike for the next campaign.
The sides met as recently as last month, when a 0-0 draw behind closed doors in Rijeka seemed to leave the visitors – beaten at home by Spain in their previous outing – with a mountain to climb. A handy 3-2 win in Spain – the exact same score by which Croatia also beat Luis Enrique’s side – rejuvenated the Three Lions, and so here we are. If this match ends in a draw, Spain will profit as first-place qualifiers.
England vs Croatia Prediction: England 3-2 Croatia
They’ve played each other in Russia, then in Croatia, and now, finally, they’re meeting at Wembley. England will not have fond memories of their meetings with this opponent so far this year, but on home soil they have to be considered favourites for a game which will see Zlatko Dalic’s men deprived of the midfield ingenuity of Ivan Rakitic, injured against Spain. 3-2 has been a fashionable result in this group of late, and with both teams knowing a draw won’t help them there’s likely to be plenty of attacking football – a situation which may suit the hosts.
Our recommended tip: Over 3.5 goals
Although Croatia arrive in England minus two influential players in Mario Mandzukic and Rakitic, we’re talking about a World Cup finalist here – they’ve got decent back-up. Against Spain, defender Tin Jedvac stepped up to score twice including a last-minute winner. On the English side, Jadon Sancho impressed once again as the USA were beaten 3-0 while Callum Wilson marked his debut with a goal. Add to that the fact that Harry Kane will be ready to start, and there is every chance that a punt on Unibet’s odds of 39/20 (2.95) will have paid off earlier than most people expect.
The way the Nations League is structured has thrown up the quirky outcome that these sides are facing off for the third time in just over four months – previously almost unheard of in international football. It will weigh on English minds that neither of the previous two meetings has ended in a win for Southgate’s men.
The 0-0 draw in Rijeka could have gone either way, but the match that will stand out is the World Cup semi-final. Having led from the 4th minute through a Trippier free-kick, England entered the final quarter with the final in view. An Ivan Perisic strike then turned things back in Croatia’s favour, taking the game to extra time. The first period passed without much incident, but in the game’s 110th minute, a Mandzukic goal spelled delight for his country and despair for the English. Time for revenge?
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Players to watch: Jadon Sancho & Marko Rog
Sancho took a brave decision to pass up the chance of learning at Manchester City and move to Germany while aged just 17. That decision certainly seems to have paid off, as he had a Bundesliga goal and a few assists to his name before he officially became an adult. He’s started this season excellently – scoring four and leading the league in assists with six – and is a key part of a side leading the German league. Oh, and he’s made his England debut, looking impressive in Rijeka before another fine showing against the USA. He may start on the bench here, but he’ll get playing time, be sure of it.
In the absence of Rakitic, there will be some question over who will take his place in the Croatian midfield. Though a less recognised name than some contenders, Rog’s claims for the spot are worth some attention. A starter for Napoli, he’s naturally skilled at pressing and winning the ball. His almost freakish degree of strength means he’s almost impossible to knock off it once it’s won, and he can spot and play a pass too. It’s a little bit like if Roy Keane and David Beckham had inhabited the same body, circa 1999. In other words, England needn’t cheer Rakitic’s absence too loudly.