Gareth Southgate has challenged England to end their “brilliant year” in memorable fashion by beating their World Cup conquerors Croatia at Wembley to reach the Nations League Finals on Sunday.
Southgate’s side defied expectations earlier this year by reaching the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1990, where they were beaten by Croatia after extra-time in a gruelling clash.
The England manager created a vibrant young group that revitalised the country’s relationship with a national team that had been much maligned for their serial underachievement.
“It has been a brilliant year. Whatever happens on Sunday, we’ve had real shoots of progress and achieved some outstanding results and really good performances and blooded a lot of new players,” said Southgate on Friday.
“It’s given us a real depth to the squad and competition for places.”
Although England’s World Cup run ended in heartache in Moscow against Sunday’s opponents, the momentum from the tournament has carried over to this season.
Now England can gain a measure of revenge over Croatia in their winner-takes-all Group A4 showdown at Wembley.
“We were very keen that we moved on from the World Cup as quickly as possible,” Southgate said.
“I think everybody wants to go another stage and get to a semi-final out of a group which is as tough as there has been in this competition.
“So, it is a really good game for everybody to look forward to.”
If England beat Croatia, they will win the group and progress to the finals of the new competition — which offers the chance of qualification for Euro 2020 — as well as relegate Croatia.
Meanwhile a win for Croatia would take Zlatko Dalic’s men to the semi-finals and send England down to League B, and a draw would send current group leaders Spain to the knockout stage.
England can also be relegated with a score draw, and Croatia will drop down a level if it finishes goalless.
England warmed up for Sunday’s clash by defeating the United States 3-0 in a friendly on Thursday that doubled as a fond farewell for Wayne Rooney, who made a final appearance as a substitute.
Southgate named an even less experienced side than usual, with the likes of Lewis Dunk, Callum Wilson and Jadon Sancho seizing the opportunity to impress.
But Southgate will recall Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling to face Croatia.
“We’ve got two days to prepare, so it was one of the reasons we played the team we did,” he said.
“We know pretty much all there is to know about Croatia, most importantly that their desire.
“Coming to a full house at Wembley, they’ve got big players that will relish that challenge and we’ve got to relish that challenge as well.”
Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic will miss the match after the Barcelona star returned to his club due to an unspecified injury.
But Tin Jedvaj, whose stoppage-time goal helped Croatia to a shock 3-2 victory over Spain this week, insists his side are confident of inflicting more misery on England after coming from behind to deny the Three Lions their first World Cup final appearance since 1966.
The two countries also drew 0-0 behind closed doors in Croatia last month, and Jedvaj says England shouldn’t expect an easy ride at Wembley.
“In Russia, we proved that we could beat them without any problems and that they aren’t better than us,” he told UEFA.com.
“We might even be the favourites despite the fact that we are playing away. They are England but we believe that we can win and end the group stage on top.”
© Agence France-Presse (Additional edits by Marisa Kennedy)