Gareth Southgate and England were handed a very familiar set of opponents in Saturday’s Euro 2020 draw in Bucharest. Playing all three group games at Wembley, they will face Croatia, the Czech Republic and the winners of play-off path C.
In a tie that brings back so many memories of last summer, the Three Lions’ opener will be against Croatia on 14th June. England fans still re-watch that glorious Kieran Trippier free-kick from the semi-final in 2018. But as that game unfolded before the eyes of the nail-biting millions, Croatia tilted the weights and took control of the wheel, driving England down a cul-de-sac with simply no way out.
Croatia were a side with Champions League-pedigree players… but so were England. It was the maturity and big-match experience of regularly winning such games that explained why Zlatko Dalić’s side prevailed at England’s expense.
An inexplicable 6-0 defeat to Spain and further defeats to Hungary, Tunisia and indeed to England had put a dampener on the Croats’ form and caused somewhat of a World Cup final hangover. However, the side have responded well in recent international breaks and currently sit on an unbeaten run of six matches.
England have a funny old history with Croatia – past results suggest these are two very well-matched sides indeed. The Three Lions have the edge, with five wins to Croatia’s three in ten past fixtures.
Gareth Southgate achieved revenge of a sort in November last year, beating Croatia late on at a sold-out Wembley to reach the Nations League Finals and simultaneously relegate Croatia (although relegations from League A have since been rescinded). A European Championships opener is a whole other proposition.
England v Croatia: Key Clashes
2004… Croatia 2-4 England, Euro 2004
2006… Croatia 2-0 England, Euro 2008 Qualifier
2007… England 2-3 Croatia, Euro 2008 Qualifier
2008… Croatia 1-4 England, World Cup 2010 Qualifier
2009… England 5-1 Croatia, World Cup 2010 Qualifier
2018… Croatia 2-1 England, World Cup 2018
2018… Croatia 0-0 England, Nations League 2018/19
2018… England 2-1 Croatia, Nations League 2018/19
The second group game for the Three Lions is still a bit of an unknown quantity. As Glasgow is the other host city in England’s group, Scotland and their fellow play-off path C competitors are certain to be in England’s Group D. Only one of these four sides will qualify, and the four are Israel, Norway, Scotland and Serbia.
If Israel qualify, they’ll have reached their first ever Euros. They have lost five of their last seven games, including disappointing defeats to Slovenia and North Macedonia. However, they do have a talismanic striker – Eran Zahavi has scored 11 of their last 16 goals, coming second to only Harry Kane as qualifying’s top scorer. Israel are ranked 93rd in the world; England are fourth. The Three Lions would fancy their chances of victory.
Norway have historically underachieved at the European Championships, falling at the first hurdle, the group-stages, in their only appearance, in 2000. Former Sweden and Nigeria manager Lars Lagerbäck is their manager – the man that masterminded Iceland’s defeat of England at Euro 2016.
Scotland would be a classic fixture for England – the 115th meeting between the two sides and a repeat of the first ever international football match back in 1872. But Scotland’s chances of making it through don’t look great – Norway and Serbia are in much better form, and Israel beat them in the Nations League last year.
Many England fans would dearly love a chance to effectively replay that Paul Gascoigne-infused victory over the Auld Enemy, also at Wembley, at Euro ’96.
The final possibility for that second opponent is Serbia. Remarkably, the two sides have never met. Not since Serbia became an independent state in its own right, that is. Serbia twice came runners-up at the Euros as Yugoslavia, but haven’t qualified either as Serbia & Montenegro, nor as Serbia. In the last year, they’ve claimed creditable draws with Germany, France and Ukraine. They have the likes of Aleksandar Mitrović, Nemanja Matić and Dušan Tadić in their ranks.
England’s final group game will be against a very familiar side indeed – the Czech Republic, runners-up in the Three Lions’ qualifying group. The 1966 World Cup winners opened their qualification campaign with a 5-0 win over the Czechs at Wembley. The visitors were dreadful in that fixture, falling to their biggest ever margin of defeat.
But it was a very different story in the return leg, when England lost their first qualifier of any sort in exactly a decade, suffering a 2-1 defeat in Prague on a miserable and forgettable night. England know they can beat the Czech Republic; they just need to reproduce a performance more like the sides’ March meeting than that of October.
“There will be no complacency on our side, but we have the advantage of playing at home.”Gareth Southgate on England’s Group D opponents
The Czechs have a better record in European Championships than England, having won the tournament as Czechoslovakia in 1976 and finished second in 1996, in their very first edition as a new separate nation.
Overall though, this makes for pleasant viewing from an England perspective. Indeed, you could argue any group would have looked kind, within reason, because of just how good England are right now.
However, Gareth Southgate will be keen to keep his side modest and measured in their reflections. There is nothing wrong with ambition, but blind complacency is to be avoided at all costs. That is the demon that gave birth to three of the worst days in English football history – USA 1-0 England in 1950, England 3-6 Hungary in 1953, and Iceland 2-1 England in 2016.
So, England will face Croatia, the Czech Republic and one other in Group D. It certainly could have been a lot worse than that. However, if England top the group, a Second Round fixture will be against the runner-up of Group F. This, classically, is the group of death, housing no less than Germany, world champions France, and European champions Portugal.
In June, England and Croatia will take to the pitch for a repeat of that heart-aching semi-final a-year-and-a-half ago. Exciting times lie ahead for Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and England.