How Croatia can cause England problems at Euro 2020 as Three Lions reunion looms large

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With their warm-up games done and dusted, England and Croatia have been left to size each other up ahead of their Euro 2020 opener on Sunday.

There will be echoes of Russia 2018 when the two sides walk out at Wembley. Having exceeded expectations by making it to the semi-finals, the Three Lions were finally knocked out of the tournament thanks to a sucker punch from Mario Mandzukic in extra time.

Croatia would go on to have their hearts broken in the final, finishing as runners-up as France – inspired by Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and all the rest – lifted the World Cup.

That leaves that Luka Modric and Co. also looking for redemption at this tournament, though they arrive in mixed form.

England have played Croatia twice since that fateful meeting at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, winning one and drawing the other.

Luka Modric is still a hugely important player for Croatia
(Image: Laurence Griffiths)

Both games came in the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League – where Croatia finished bottom of a group which also featured Spain. They didn’t have much more success in the most recent edition of the tournament, where they were outclassed by France and Portugal.

While they qualified for Euro 2020 with relative ease, Croatia’s warm-up friendlies yielded a frustrating 1-1 draw with Armenia and a 1-0 defeat by Belgium. Nonetheless, they could still prove to be England’s nemeses at the group stage.

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Style of play

Mateo Kovacic is among Croatia's impressive array of midfielders
(Image: Reuters)

Croatia’s greatest asset is their smart, technically gifted midfield.

Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic takes a muscular, box-to-box approach, Chelsea ’s Mateo Kovacic operates in the space between the lines while, creatively, Modric is still the beating heart of the team. They also have a dangerous No. 10 in Nikola Vlasic, who made little impression during his time at Everton but has reinvented himself at CSKA Moscow.

Out wide, representing Inter and AC Milan respectively, Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic are the danger men. Up front, however, there has been a Mandzukic-shaped hole ever since he retired three years ago, with Dinamo Zagreb striker Bruno Petkovic having mixed success.

Even at Russia 2018, Croatia weren’t the strongest side defensively. Their back four has looked vulnerable in big games recently, with Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren both in their early thirties and Croatia still trying to figure out a succession plan.

They still have goals in them, however, and a wildcard young winger in Josip Brekalo. He excelled for VfL Wolfsburg last season in the Bundesliga and, while he may not start, he could still make an impression from the bench.

Manager

Gareth Southgate (left) speaks with Zlatko Dalic at the Euro 2020 final draw ceremony in Bucharest
(Image: Dean Mouhtaropoulos)

Croatia are coached by Zlatko Dalic, who has been in charge since 2017.

He was in the opposite dugout to Gareth Southgate when Croatia beat England at the World Cup – and during their Nations League meetings – so he should make for a familiar opponent.

Having managed various clubs in Croatia, Albania, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, he has made his reputation on the international stage.

His preferred 4-2-3-1 formation helps him to make the most of his midfield, allowing Modric to build attacks from deep with Brozovic as a protective presence alongside him.

Asked for his assessment of England earlier this week, he said: “I am sure the English will be very aggressive from the start and we have to keep them at bay.”

Star player

Modric will captain Croatia at Euro 2020
(Image: Catherine Ivill)

He may be three years older than when Croatia last beat England, but Modric still runs the show in the middle of the park.

He has a chequered legacy in his home country owing to his involvement in the corruption trial of former Dinamo Zagreb executive Zdravko Mamic , after which he was charged with perjury. The charges were later dropped , but the controversy has never entirely gone away.

Nonetheless, he remains one of Croatia’s most influential players. He may be 35, but Modric made 48 appearances for Real Madrid last term and still has the ability to dictate a game from midfield.

He also scored six goals last season, his best tally since leaving Dinamo in 2008.

Given that he is now in the twilight of his international career, he will be more motivated than ever to lead Croatia to a historic first triumph at a major tournament.

One to watch

Duje Caleta-Car does his best to stop Romelu Lukaku

If Croatia have a succession crisis at centre-back, then Duje Caleta-Car is heir apparent.

Caleta-Car, 24, has made a name for himself at Marseille over the last three seasons, having got his big break at Red Bull Salzburg.

A target for Liverpool amid their defensive injury woes last season, Caleta-Car is only likely to attract more interest from the Premier League if he impresses in the coming weeks.

Standing at 6’4, he’s a towering presence at the back and doesn’t often lose his aerial duels. He also has a mean cross-field pass in his arsenal, so England will need to watch out for him with the ball at his feet.

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