England v Croatia Preview

Brazil qualified at the weekend thanks to a 3-1 win in Argentina, who
are now fourth in the South American group, five points behind Chile and Paraguay and only two points in front of Colombia and Ecuador. If Ecuador win in Bolivia this evening or Colombia win in Uruguay and Argentina fail to pick up a point in Paraguay early on Thursday morning then either or
possibly both of them latter could leapfrog Diego’s boys. Even if Argentina manage to qualify there’s no guarantee that Maradona will be the coach, although I suppose it might be to our advantage if they did and he was!

It’s also still very tight in Central America, where Honduras, the USA,
Mexico and Costa Rica are potential qualifiers – the big game early tomorrow morning British time is when group leaders Honduras travel to Mexico, but the USA could take pole position if they beat Trinidad & Tobago.

Back to Europe and both Spain and ourselves can qualify this evening, although the reigning European Champions may need another game even if they beat Estonia; if Bosnia-Herzegovina beat Turkey they can still mathematically overtake Spain to win the group, although that’s a long shot at best and would need the type of collapse in form the Spanish normally experience once they qualify for a tournament.

So to our game. The mind games (or at least the attempted mind games) started a couple of weeks ago when Luka Modric broke his leg (shades of Eduardo); on Monday Slaven Bilic described the England team as missing ‘Englishness’, which in some ways is actually a backhanded compliment, although he may have meant Brylcreemed hair, pre-match fry ups, injections of monkey glands and the traditional half time fag with a pint of stout with a raw egg chaser.  I’m sure that if they discovered that the Austrian ref who sent off Spurs’ Vedran Corluka on Saturday had an English aunt that would have been brought up as proof of some kind of conspiracy theory…although Herr Plautz does have his own website: www.konradplautz.com

Anyway, we’ve got a mixed record against the Croats – they’ve won two of the last three meetings – and there hasn’t been a draw since the first time we played them, back in April 1996. Their away form is very impressive – their last defeat was a 0-2 reverse in Macedonia in a Euro 2008 qualifier in November 2007 and they’re currently on a ten game undefeated away run.

Six of the team that started against us when we won 4-1 last September played in the 1-0 win against Belarus on Saturday: Simunic, Srna, Pranjic, Rakitic (who scored the winning goal) and Olic. Additionally Pokrivac, Petric and Mandzukic (who scored the Croatian consulation goal in last year’s game) were all on the bench. There are quite are few familiar names there: Kranjcar, Eduardo and Klasnic are all currently plying their trade in England and if Modric had been fit and Corluka hadn’t been suspended then
the majority of the potential starting XI would have been Premiership regulars.

I would imagine that the England line up will be similar to the one  on Saturday, although Fabio Capello may make some minor tweaks to the formation simply because Modric and Corluka are missing – we may be a bit more adventurous through the midfield for example – and because Croatia need the points more than we do. Bilic is an adept enough tactician to be able to pose England problems without Modric (packing the midfield and trying to pick off Glen Johnson might work) but to some extent Croatia without Modric is like England without Wayne Rooney: dangerous but not quite the same threat.

One thing will be obvious though. If we qualify, this is the type of game England need to be prepared for next summer: tough opposition used to playing Premiership players with a capable coach with experience of and respect for British football. Not to mention increased fan expectations, which will go through the roof once qualification is ensured.

ITV and Radio 5 will be covering the game and as we’ll be watching it there’ll probably be some garbled nonsense on twitter or posted here at half time and (depending on the result) either a period of mournful silence or lots of over excited capital letters with far too many exclamation marks when it’s over.

Difficult not to be excited though, isn’t it? Now stop reading this and get on with your work.

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