England vs Croatia could end up the weirdest Three Lions international of all time
A competitive match played behind closed doors, because a green-fingered Nazi saboteur mowed a swastika into a pitch in Split three years ago, earning the Croatian FA this punishment.
And despite Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp branding the Uefa Nations League as “the most senseless competition in the world”, this is a match of genuine importance for Gareth Southgate.
Lose it and England will lose their top-seed status for the Euro 2020 qualifying groups in the new year.
That means they could end up drawing one of the powerhouses of European football, lessening their chances of qualifying for a tournament in which Wembley will stage the semi-finals and final.
Then there is the fact that the most humble England manager and squad in living memory are heading into a re-run of their World Cup semi-final, with Croatians still smearing them as arrogant because of Football’s Coming Home, a misunderstood pop song written in 1996, before many of these Three Lions players were even born.
All in all, it is a most unusual backdrop for a match which could see one or more of Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount, James Maddison and Nathaniel Chalobah making their international debuts.
Southgate has overhauled his midfield precisely because of that semi-final defeat when England lost their composure and technique, giving away the ball too often and tossing away a World Cup final spot.
If any of them do earn their first caps, most likely off the bench, it will be a severely strange atmosphere in which to do so — playing in front of around 500 or so blazers and journalists, with tickets that money genuinely cannot buy.
While Croatia are the team being sanctioned, losing the benefit of their famously passionate home support, England would rather be playing in front of a full house.
Their gutsiest display of the World Cup came in the last-16 match against Colombia.
Southgate’s men ballsed it out, winning their nation’s first World Cup shootout in front of a hostile crowd dominated by fans of the South Americans.
The Three Lions boss would rather his new recruits, as well as inexperienced returning players such as Harry Winks and Ross Barkley, were tested before a similarly partisan crowd here.
As it is, they will have to keep up their competitive intensity in a pin-drop environment akin to a training session.
Southgate has publicly told his troops they can carry on swearing despite the fact that their industrial language is sure to picked up by TV and radio mics in the tiny 8,200-capacity HNK Stadium.
Away from the cameras, it is believed he may have warned them to curb the worst excesses of their potty mouths.
A smiling Southgate said: “We’ve spent most of the last two years encouraging them to speak, so to stop them from speaking to each now would be slightly detrimental to what we’re trying to work on.”
It is true England’s young squad have lacked natural leaders and that Southgate values the ability of team-mates to tear each other off a strip.
Yet it is interesting that the idea of footballers talking to each other without turning the air blue is not even regarded as an option.
If England lose this, there will be plenty of cursing among the FA top brass too.
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