Croatia v England: We’ll field a team we believe in, insists Southgate

England manager Gareth Southgate talks to the media at Stadion HNK Rijeka (Picture: Tim Goode/PA Wire).
England manager Gareth Southgate talks to the media at Stadion HNK Rijeka (Picture: Tim Goode/PA Wire).
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Manager Gareth Southgate believes his inexperienced England squad are up for the challenge of handling the quirks of playing at an empty stadium and exacting revenge against World Cup semi-final foes Croatia.

Three months after meeting at a packed Luzhniki the nations will face one another at the empty Stadion HNK Rijeka as the hosts complete a UEFA ground ban for having a swastika on the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.

Five-hundred hardy England supporters have reportedly still made the trip to Croatia in the hope of catching a glimpse of a Nations League clash that will see changes to the line-ups from their semi-final meeting.

Southgate is expecting an odd atmosphere and feels for England fans, especially as a number had booked travel and accommodation before it was revealed in January that the match would be played behind closed doors.

“It will be a strange experience,” the England manager said on the eve of the Group A4 meeting.

“I guess we effectively do that every day of our lives – we play football in front of a handful of people watching, so it’s not totally unique.

“But for a match situation, in an international, very different.

“I am sure Croatia feel the same. For them not to have the encouragement of what is an incredibly passionate support will be very different for them.

“So it’s a shame especially for our travelling fans, who were brilliant for us all summer and so many of whom haven’t missed an England game for years.

“That’s unfortunate for them in particular.”

It is understood players were sent footage of last year’s LaLiga clash between Barcelona and Las Palmas at a deserted Nou Camp to prepare them for the mood of tonight’s encounter.

Southgate smiled when asked if he had warned his players about using colourful language – “we’ve spent two years encouraging them to speak” – and trusts his young players to step up to the mark against the World Cup runners-up.

James Maddison, Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho – the latter the first player born this millennium to get a call-up – are with the senior side for the first time, while Ben Chilwell could make his first start after fellow left-backs Danny Rose and Luke Shaw withdrew.

James Tarkowski and Alex McCarthy have also left with complaints of their own, compounding existing injury issues that meant Southgate laughed off Croatia’s issues, despite their 6-0 loss to Spain last time out.

“Their team looks pretty strong to me,” the England boss said, having heard that opposite number Zlatko Dalic named his starting line-up in his own press conference.

“We’ve also had effective retirements and our fair share of injuries this week.

“I am looking at their midfield – Modric, Rakitic, Kovacic, with Rebic and Perisic. So, I think they’re okay.

“So, it’s a really good test for us. We’ve obviously got a different team from the team that played in the semi-final and it’s a good challenge for us.

“That game after 90 minutes was 1-1, so let’s see what we can do.

“These big matches against top teams we’re learning a huge amount from.”

While Southgate’s squad cannot match the hosts’ experience, the England manager scoffed at the suggestion his side would be experimental in Rijeka.

“No, we’re here to try and get a result,” he added. “The team we play will be a team we believe in, whoever is ready to start.

“There’s nobody in the squad that’s here that we’re not thinking of putting into the team.

“It’s not experimentation, it’s players we believe in.

“Players that, okay, in a lot of cases are relatively inexperienced at the highest level, but players we’ve enjoyed working with, have shown in training this week that they can handle this level and we’ll pick a team that we think is the best one to win the game.”

England defender John Stones hopes to move on from his World Cup frustration and “put things right” tonight.

The Three Lions’ third run to the last four of a World Cup came to a heartbreaking end in July as Dalic’s side came from behind to secure a 2-1 extra-time win in Moscow.

Mario Mandzukic ran behind Stones to slam home the winner, a moment the Manchester City player is sure to have replayed in his head hundreds of times since.

The 24-year-old refrained from talking about revenge on the eve of the game, but the former Barnsley defender spoke of improving aspects of the display.

“I don’t want to say anything about the World Cup. I think we’ve got a new game, a new challenge in front of us.”