Gareth Southgate is determined to end England‘s “brilliant year” in style by beating World Cup semi-final foes Croatia to reach the inaugural Nations League Finals.
Even the most optimistic supporter would have struggled to predict the way 2018 has panned out for the callow Three Lions.
Southgate’s trust in youth paid dividends in Russia as England reached the final four for just the third time, while the year now comes to a close with a revenge mission which offers a shot at silverware next summer.
Croatia broke English hearts in July’s Moscow semi-final and head to Wembley this Sunday in a winner-takes-all encounter which will settle relegation from Group A4 as well as the winner.
Progress to the Nations League Finals from a group including Croatia and Spain would be quite a feat and another promising sign of progress.
“We were very keen that we moved on from the World Cup as quickly as possible,” Southgate said.
“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.
“It’s given us a real depth to the squad and competition for places.
“But 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.”
England deserved to win last month’s meeting against Croatia, but the eerie behind-closed-doors clash in Rijeka ended goalless.
Southgate’s men went on to secure a memorable 3-2 win in Spain, who Zlatko Dalic’s men shocked by the same scoreline in Zagreb on Thursday evening to leave Sunday’s match on a knife-edge.
“We’ve got two days to prepare, so it was one of the reasons we played the team we did tonight,” the England boss said after his experimental side overcame the United States 3-0 in a friendly at Wembley.
“We’ll look at their game from tonight, just to see how they approached it against Spain, but we know pretty much all there is to know about Croatia – most importantly that their desire, their mentality is brilliant.
“So, we know that tonight would have given them a huge lift ahead of coming here.
“They’ll enjoy coming to Wembley, they’ll look forward to that.
“We knew the game at home for them without a crowd was probably as difficult for them as it was for us.
“But 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.”
England head into the match without any fresh injury concerns.
All-time top scorer Wayne Rooney’s involvement against the USA was always going to be a one-off, while Luke Shaw and Joe Gomez return to the fold after missing the match with minor injuries.
Southgate is likely to make wholesale changes for Croatia’s visit, having handed debuts to Lewis Dunk, Alex McCarthy and goalscorer Callum Wilson.
Thursday’s match also saw Jadon Sancho mark his first international start with an assist as the 18-year-old displayed confidence and no little skill against the Americans.
“I think some of the one-touch, two-touch football around the box was really exciting,” Southgate said.
“I thought Dele (Alli) and Jesse (Lingard) were both really good in that opening period as well.
“We talk a lot about a lack of creativity in English players, but when we’re bringing on Ruben (Loftus-Cheek) and we have got Jadon, Jesse and Dele on there, and we know there are other players coming through the system, it is an exciting period.
“None of these lads are the finished article and Jadon is very raw.
“Some of his decision-making tonight was really good and some not so good, but that’s going to be the lot of an attacking player.
“We want him try things and feel free enough in an England shirt to do those things. He can be really pleased with his first start.”