The start of Euro 2020 may still be 194 days away but there is already a degree of familiarity about the tournament for England.
As one of the hosts, Gareth Southgate’s side have the advantage of playing all their of their group games at Wembley and Saturday’s draw confirmed that the venue won’t be the only familiar factor, with England facing Croatia and Czech Republic next summer, as well as one of Scotland, Israel, Norway or Serbia.
Considering England could have been paired with world champions France or defending champions Portugal in Group D, it was a favourable draw. But playing teams you have faced frequently in the past brings its own challenges.
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“I’m never sure whether it’s a good draw,” said Southgate. “We have played two of the teams before and for us to play at Wembley is something special.”
Both Croatia and Czech Republic have enjoyed success against England recently, and yet playing at home as joint favourites to win the tournament, Southgate’s team will be confident.
Croatia knocked England out in the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup and are packed full of high class players, but there is a feeling they are a squad beginning a gradual decline. Star player Luka Modric won the Ballon d’Or last year, but is now 34 and starting to show signs of his age catching up with him.
Striker Mario Mandzukic is 33 and the much of the team’s core – Ivan Rakitic, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida and Ivan Perisic – are over 30 too. Their team make-up comes as a stark contrast to England, who named a team with an average age of 23 years and 255 days in last month’s 7-0 win over Montenegro.
Although they inflicted England’s first defeat in qualifying for 10 years with a 2-1 win in Prague last month, Southgate will not be concerned about facing Czech Republic once more. Jaroslav Silhavy’s team are as limited as their No45 world ranking suggests.
England are the big fish in the group for a good reason. They will be expecting to come out on top and head into the knockout stages with momentum. Having come on leaps and bounds under Southgate and reached the last four at the World Cup they will feel their time is now.
“We have to accept that expectations have changed from where we were. We are very critical of ourselves,” Southgate said. “We would rather be a team that are fancied than a team with no chance.”
It is this heightened status which means England will go all out to try and finish top of Group D, despite the potential pitfalls. The group winner will play the runner-up in Group F, which has already been dubbed the Group Of Death after France, Germany and Portugal all landed in it. If England were to finish second they would play the runner-up in Group E, which features Spain, Poland and Sweden.
With the positive experience of the World Cup still relatively fresh, the team on a gradual upward curve and a favourable group in which to get up to speed, England have every reason to be confident about their chances at Euro 2020.