Gareth Southgate has told his England players to forget their World Cup frustration and go for the jugular against semi-final foes Croatia in tomorrow’s crunch Nations League fixture.
Just 130 days after breaking English hearts in Moscow, Zlatko Dalic’s men arrive at Wembley for a winner-takes-all clash that will send the victor through to the inaugural Finals next summer.
Relegation from the top tier awaits the defeated side, while a draw would see Spain top Group A4 despite losing 3-2 in their last two matches.
Southgate’s men also face relegation if the match ends in a score draw, but the Three Lions boss cares little about the permutations as victory is all that he is focused on.
“It’s dead simple, really,” the England manager said. “We win, we go to a semi-final and that’s all we will focus on and everything else. We just go for it.
“There’s no point in hedging our bets that we might do this, we might do that, or we need a 0-0.
“We want to send our fans away with a performance that excites them, and we have got a chance to get through what’s been a really strong group, so for me, we just focus on going for the win.”
It would be another key moment for Southgate’s improving side, who will be hoping this clash goes better than the last two key meetings with Croatia.
Steve McClaren was labelled the ‘Wally with the Brolly’ as his side lost 3-2 at Wembley and missed Euro 2008, while Croatia secured a 2-1 extra-time semi-final comeback win in the summer.
“I think for me it is about our team and now,” said Southgate.
We didn’t get over the line in the summer, and we want to try to prove that we have learned from that, and have improved from the summer, and we play a team which we hugely respect with real competitors and warriors.Gareth Southgate
“We didn’t get over the line in the summer, and we want to try to prove that we have learned from that, and have improved from the summer, and we play a team which we hugely respect with real competitors and warriors.
“They showed on Thursday they have flipped from a 6-0 defeat in September to a win in the 93rd minute.
“It tells us everything about their mentality and quality.
“I just think it is a great game for everybody to look forward to.”
Asked if victory was important to stop Croatia becoming a nagging issue like penalties have been, Southgate said: “I hadn’t really thought of it in that way.
“They’ve always had players of the highest quality and – as a new country with what they’ve been through – a mentality and resilience that is absolute top.
“We’ve got to make sure that we show how we’re progressing, and that we’ve learned from our recent past, and build on the two performances we had last month.”
England thrilled onlookers in Spain as they secured a 3-2 win on the back of a positive performance in Croatia, having drawn 0-0 behind closed doors in Rijeka.
Southgate knows Dalic’s men have “another gear to go to” from that display, but they will come up against a Three Lions side with as much hunger as they have ability.
“We’ve got players who should feel on this stage that it’s their moment to deliver and show what they can do,” he said after the 3-0 friendly win against the United States on Thursday.
“I know they’re hugely excited at hearing the result and realising there’s an opportunity to aim for something again, rather than a game that’s just for pride.”
England welcome Joe Gomez and Luke Shaw back into the fold for tomorrow’s match, when Southgate will try to oversee a triumphant end to a superb 2018.
“We want to achieve consistent performances and continue to improve and learn as a team, and these games have given us a really good test,” he added.
“It is unprecedented that you come off the back of a major tournament and have so many strong tests in such a quick period of time.
“It’s been really good for us as the way of learning and improving what we do with and without the ball, gaining some belief, but also we have some new players who have emerged in that period as well.
“We are pleased with the progress up to this point and we want to finish that well.”
Richard Sutcliffe on England’s progress: Page 4