Gareth Southgate will let England’s football do the talking against bullish World Cup semi-final foes Croatia as they attempt to reach the inaugural Nations League Finals.
A sell-out Wembley will witness a fascinating winner-takes-all encounter on Sunday, when the victor will be propelled into another semi-final as the defeated side suffer relegation from the top tier.
A draw offers Spain hope and brings different outcomes, but Southgate is only focused on ending the year on a high against the side that inflicted World Cup heartache with a 2-1 semi-final comeback win after extra-time in July.
Luka Modric accused England of being overconfident following that win, but now Croatia appear to be displaying that trait as defender Tin Jedvaj said they beat Southgate’s men “without any problems” in the summer.
He also suggested the visitors should be considered favourites on Sunday – comments that England are aware of, just as the players heard ex-Sweden midfielder Hakan Mild call them “spoilt children” before their quarter-final.
“Whenever people speak, you give the opposition the opportunity to use those words as they see fit,” manager Southgate said when Jedvaj’s comments were put to him.
“There were some comments from Sweden in the summer that we definitely used to our advantage.
“And you can steer that in any way, because half the players thought it was a current Sweden player and it wasn’t, so I wasn’t going to argue with them!
“You always have to be conscious of how your words can provide motivation to the opposition. But for Croatia, it’s about how our mindset is for the game. We’ve got to play bloody well. They’re a good team, and with and without the ball we’ve got to be spot on to beat them.”
Southgate downplayed suggestions that England are at an advantage due to Ivan Rakitic’s absence and the exertions of Croatia in Thursday’s 3-2 win against Spain, instead talking up their resilience and technical qualities.
It is certainly shaping up to be a thrilling encounter that will bring a shot at silverware within touching distance, even if the importance of Nations League success becomes clearer down the line.
“It’s not a European Championship or a World Cup, but it’s good habits to get into,” Southgate said ahead of the Group A4 decider.
“We want to win big matches and matches where there is a bit more pressure and more emphasis, full house. These are really good experiences for the team and wherever it sits we won’t know.
“When they started to have a European Championships many years ago a lot of teams didn’t enter, and these things evolve.
“The idea if a competition where all the best teams are playing against each other I thought was an exciting concept. We won’t know until time passes where it sits.”
Many of those that had doubted the merits of the Nations League have been won over by its competitive nature, although Southgate was never among those naysayers.
The structure has allowed England to have an “unprecedented year in terms of the quality of the fixtures” that provides perfect learning opportunities for his group.
Last month they shocked Spain 3-2 in Seville and Sunday gives England the chance to continue breaking the long-standing knack of faltering against the best.
Southgate said: “It’s not perception, it’s the truth – we haven’t beaten top teams historically. When I have looked back it just hasn’t happened.
“Would that be it for good? No because every time you go into a round of matches you have to prove yourselves again.
“What has been exciting is that we have looked at the summer and what we achieved but, OK, what do we do to progress that forward?
“If you look at the five games we have played, some of the performances have been very good, some of the results have been good, wins against top 10 nations.
“And the emergence of more young players that has given us greater depth to the squad.
“This period is one where there has been improvement and progress. It would be the icing on the cake if we could win the game tomorrow and take another forward step as a team.”