Gareth Southgate is expecting a thrilling clash as ever-improving England look to overcome World Cup semi-final foes Croatia and reach the inaugural Nations League Finals.
Wembley will play host to the countries’ third meeting in just 130 days in a fascinating winner-takes-all encounter on Sunday.
Victory secures progress to next summer’s Nations League Finals and a semi-final spot, while the defeated side will be relegated from the top tier after an exciting first edition of the previously derided competition.
A full house will greet the sides for the Group A4 finale, when England have the chance to exact revenge for the extra-time 2-1 defeat to Croatia in July’s World Cup semi-final.
“We’ve obviously played them twice in the last few months and we know their style of play, we know their preferences, the areas that they build up,” Southgate said, having overseen a 0-0 draw behind closed door in Rijeka last month.
“We know areas that we think we can try to exploit and it’s two really evenly matchws teams. Both games after 90 minutes have been draws. I think there’s been periods in both of those matches where each team has the upper hand.
“We have got to put all the things together tomorrow and make sure we back up the last few performances, which have been really healthy, and finish the calendar year from an England perspective on a high.”
This has certainly been a year to cherish for England, who reached the World Cup semi-finals for just the third time and are reaping the rewards of Southgate’s trust in youth.
“I think we’ve learned with every experience we’ve had,” the former defender said when reflecting on the changes since the semi-final loss to Croatia.
“We’ve added more depth to the squad, in terms of some more young players emerging, more competition for places. We’ve had a slight change of system, which has also had something different, so we have some flexibility in how we can play, so we’re always improving.
“I think in those five matches that you’ve seen since the summer, what we haven’t done is sat on our laurels and said ‘OK, we’re happy with what he did at the World Cup and that’s it for the year and we’ll look forward to the European Championships’.
“We’ve wanted to keep improving and I think the players have shown that mentality as well.”
Southgate cares little for the permutations on Sunday – “we want to win the game, simple as that,” he said – and downplayed suggestions that Ivan Rakitic’s absence could be a boost for his side.
The Three Lions boss also dismissed talk that Croatia’s exertions during Thursday’s 3-2 win against Spain could be an advantage.
That was the same scoreline that Slaven Bilic’s men triumphed by 11 years ago at Wembley, where Steve McClaren was labelled the ‘Wally with the Brolly’ as the Three Lions missed Euro 2008.
“I remember Slaven having a fantastic impact with the team,” Southgate said.
“Some of the players that are still playing for them were around at that time, so that’s why we have so much respect for a lot of those senior players, in particular. But that game has no bearing on tomorrow’s game. We have a completely new team, a completely new mindset.
“We’re trying to break barriers down and play in a different way, a different style and we’re getting better all the time so we’re looking forward to the challenge tomorrow.”
Joe Gomez and Luke Shaw come back into contention on Sunday after missing Thursday’s 3-0 friendly win against the United States through injury – a match when Southgate rotated with an eye on this captivating duel.
“I think we’ve proved ourselves across the year to be two of the best teams in the world this year,” the England manager added.
“At the moment, Croatia have that advantage that they beat us in extra-time in the semi-final. We’ve got huge respect for them, their players, their coach, their mentality.
“But also we’ve got belief that we’re improving and we’re learning all the time and people can see how hungry we are to succeed, so we’ve got great motivation ahead of tomorrow’s match.”