A simple way to demonstrate progress is to approach a task at which you’ve previously failed and then conquer it, showing that you’ve learned from past mistakes and grown from them.
This kind of opportunity is how England gets to open its Euro 2020 when it takes on Croatia, the team that ended its World Cup 2018 campaign in the semifinals. With many members of that team in Russia returning three years later, the Three Lions will quickly have the chance to show that they’re capable of meeting the lofty expectations placed upon them by fans and pundits alike.
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While England can’t take anything for granted, the group stage at the Euro will provide the opportunity for Gareth Southgate to find his best XI or at least his most cohesive ahead of the knockout round. Perhaps only Didier Deschamps and France have the same kind of headache that Southgate faces in selecting a team from so many skilled options. But England has had talented teams in the past and failed to live up to the considerable hype and it’s up to Southgate to make sure this time around is different.
Southgate believes that Croatia provides the perfect early test for his group.
"Croatia are so close, they're a team of warriors who fight for the shirt, who fight for the flag,” the England manager said. “They've got technically brilliant players, so we've got huge respect for them. We've played them three times in competitive games in the last four years and every game has been really, really tight. We've got massive respect for them, and I have huge respect for [Croatia manager Zlatko Dalić] – he's done an amazing job and I think he's a really good person."
Following Croatia’s 2-1 victory over England in Russia, the two teams met twice more in the UEFA Nations League later in 2018. The teams played to a drab 0-0 draw in Rijeka that October before the Three Lions claimed a 2-1 win at Wembley – the site of Saturday’s match – the following month, with captain Harry Kane bagging a late winner. In the all-time series between the two nations, England holds a 5-3-2 edge.
Like Southgate, Dalić has nothing but respect for an opponent he knows well and looks at Saturday’s contest as the toughest match for each during the group stage, but remains wary of looking too far ahead.
“They have an excellent team, a lot of top players, especially in attack,” Dalić said of the Three Lions. “We will need to stop them and it won't be easy, especially at Wembley. Our first and main goal is to get through the group stage. Then we should think step by step, but I wouldn't look that far ahead now. First, we need first to do everything we can to reach the knockout phase.”
Neither team would ever admit it, but both would be happy to claim a draw on Saturday.
POTENTIAL ENGLAND XI: Pickford, Walker, Stones, Mings, Shaw, Rice, Foden, Mount, Bellingham, Rashford, Kane
POTENTIAL CROATIA XI: Livakovic, Vrsaljko, Vida, Caleta-Car, Barisic, Modric, Brozovic, Kovacic, Perisic, Petkovic, Rebic