England face Croatia in the UEFA Nations League
England play their final Nations League fixture at Wembley on Sunday and depending on results elsewhere, could be challenging Spain for the top spot in the group or battling to avoid the humiliation of relegation.
Perhaps the most avid watchers of Thursday night’s clash between Spain and Croatia will be Gareth Southgate and the England players. England’s shock 3-2 win away at the Benito Villamarin stadium in Seville has given Group A4 a totally different complexion and as they head into the last clash of the group, England could snatch the group from Spain or could face a relegation shoot out with Croatia.
Much depends on what happens when Croatia face Spain. If Spain fail to win, an England victory at home on Sunday against Croatia will see England top the group. They would then qualify for the Nations League finals that are held in June next year.
However a Croatia win against Spain would put Croatia level with England on points. As the head-to-head record is considered before goal difference this would mean the winner of England v Croatia progresses with the loser relegated to the B tier of the competition, due to the 0-0 when the teams met in Rijeka. If Spain beat Croatia on Wednesday, England cannot top the group so will not progress but will still face the threat of relegation when the teams meet on Sunday.
The very fact that England still have a chance to progress in the last week of the group stages is somewhat of a surprise. In the first game of the tournament they faced Spain. Despite taking the lead through an 11th minute goal by Marcus Rashford, a close-range finish by Saul Niguez in the 13th minute and Rodrigo in the 32nd gave Spain the lead. Danny Welbeck thought he had equalised in the last minute, but he was harshly adjudged to have fouled former team mate David de Gea. This decision ensured the Spaniards claimed a 2-1 victory.
England then travelled to Croatia to play a behind closed doors fixture in Rijeka. The Three Lions were hoping to get revenge for their World Cup semi-final exit at the hands of Croatia. Yet despite both Eric Dier and Harry Kane hitting the woodwork, England struggled to break down an experienced and well-organised side and the match ended 0-0.
England’s third game in the Nations League will be one that lasts long in the memory of England fans. Before the match, Spain had last lost a competitive home game 15 years ago against Greece, a run that had seen them unbeaten in 38 games. Yet after 38 minutes England had a lead of 3-0, much maligned Raheem Sterling ending a three-year international goal drought by scoring two and Marcus Rashford hitting his sixth international goal to do the damage. Inevitably Spain’s second half showing was much better. Substitute Paco Alcacer scored in the 57th minute but thankfully for England, the defenders goal in the 97th minute was the last kick of the game and England held on for a 3-2 win.
Before Sunday’s game against Croatia, England welcome back former captain and England’s top scorer, Wayne Rooney. The former Everton and Manchester United player who now plays for MLS side DC United retired from international football last year, but was invited to play in Friday’s friendly against the USA by the Football Association. A decision that has not been universally accepted with many former players, including leading cap winner Peter Shilton, accusing the FA of cheapening what it means to win an England cap.