Croatia as the first touchstone for England's title ambitions

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Croatia as the first touchstone for England's title ambitions

England's captain Kane in the EM test against Austria

It is the first big hit of the European Football Championship. England's ambitious team welcomes Vice World Champion Croatia on Sunday (3 p.m. / live ORF 1) in London. The “Three Lions” held back with loud noises. The expectations of Gareth Southgate's young troupe are great, given their potential. At the beginning, the evil spirits of 2018 are to be banished, when the World Cup semi-final against the Croatians with 1: 2 after extra time was the end of the line.

The chances of the English to end their title losing streak, which has persisted since the 1966 World Cup, are greater than they have been for a long time – especially since they enjoy something like home advantage this time as well. Not only their three group games, but also a possible round of 16, semi-finals and final, they could play at Wembley. 22,500 spectators are initially admitted there in the corona pandemic.

For weeks they have been puzzling about England's line-up, among other things. Southgate is spoiled for choice. The unlucky fellow at the home European championship in 1996, when he missed out on penalties in the semi-finals against Germany, has an overflowing reservoir of talent available – and thus a luxury problem in several positions. Top-class players like Manchester United's Marcus Rashford or Dortmund's Jadon Sancho are threatened with the substitute bench.

Only goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, central defender John Stones, defensive midfielder Declan Rice, creative man Mason Mount and star striker Harry Kane are considered to be seeded. Otherwise, it can be assumed that Southgate will rotate a lot in the group phase after an intense Corona season. The ex-defender knows about the longing of the fans. “I think we have to be realistic, we have to live with that expectation,” said Southgate.

But even at the start of the title mission, the strong team, especially on the offensive, is challenged. Croatia is still looking for top form after the national team resignations of leading players like Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic, who destroyed England's final dream in extra time in 2018 in Moscow. Despite some dampening of the mood after their triumph in Russia, Luka Modric and Co. are also among the broader favorites in the pan-European tournament.

“We have the quality, talent and confidence to beat any opponent,” said coach Zlatko Dalic. “We will try to relive the magic of the World Cup in Russia.” Among other things, Mateo Kovacic, who grew up in Linz and who is to set the tone with Modric in the middle of the field, will be there. “The most important thing is that we are calm and focused,” said the 27-year-old on Friday in the Croatian European Championship in Rovinj.

Kovacic won the Champions League with Chelsea two weeks ago – as before three times as a Real Madrid squad player. In Croatia, however, the recognition for the native Upper Austrian is not that great. “It's true that I haven't played my best game in the national team so far.” That should change in 2021. “I feel much more powerful and mature now.”

But Kovacic refrained from big announcements, the respect for the English is great. “We know that hard work is waiting for us. You are young, good, fast and you also play at home.” The British are one of the favorites to win the tournament, added AC Milan's Ante Rebic. Due to the semi-final defeat in 2018, the opponent will definitely not underestimate the Croatians this time.

A defeat at the beginning could turn out to be a significant damper for the English EM euphoria. Southgate itself thinks about more than just winning the cup before the start of the tournament. Among other things, it is about how he and his players would behave on and off the pitch, wrote the 50-year-old in an open letter to the nation published on the Internet platform “The Player's Tribune”. “How we bring people together, how we inspire and unite.”

The English face this challenge even before the tournament has kicked off. For their kneeling as a sign against racism, the “Three Lions” received a few boos from the stands before their European Championship friendly matches – including the 1-0 win against Austria on June 2nd in Middlesbrough. But the team also wants to stick to it at the EM. The discussion about it clouded the mood in the country shortly before the start of the tournament, although the sporting conditions are good as they have been for a long time.

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