Gareth Southgate has warned against complacency after England were handed a favourable draw for next summer’s Euro 2020 finals that means they face a rematch of the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia.
Wales face a tricky task to progress after being paired with Turkey, Italy and Switzerland.
England, already assured of playing all their Group D games at Wembley because of the unique nature of the 60th anniversary of the tournament in which 12 cities across Europe play host, will take on Czech Republic and the winners of play-off C – one out of Scotland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Norway.
None of those should particularly worry Southgate, who admitted he was relieved not to have been drawn in the group of death that contains Germany, the world champions, France, and the holders, Portugal.
England beat Croatia 2-1 at home during the Nations League last year to gain a modicum of revenge for their defeat by the same scoreline in Moscow four months earlier. Southgate’s side put five past the Czechs during qualifying on the way to topping their group, although they did suffer their first qualifying defeat for almost a decade against Jaroslav Silhavy’s side in Prague in November.
Southgate was wary of underestimating their opponents, particularly with the identity of the fourth side not to be determined until the play-offs in late March. “The two teams that we know, we have had really good results against them and poor results. So it’s not a group we can be complacent about,” he said. “I think everyone will be looking at Group F and be pleased they’re not in it. But Croatia at Wembley is a brilliant opening game for the fans and the players.”
England will face Croatia in their first game on 14 June, with the playoff winners up next on 19 June and the Czechs in their final group match on 23 June. Croatia went on to lose to France in the World Cup final and finished ahead of Wales in qualifying. But their manager, Zlatko Dalic, insisted England will start as favourites against his side.
“We are a new team compared to the World Cup,” he said. “We won there but now it will be a much more difficult – they are a very strong team with a lot of young players, it will be a big chance for them to beat us in front of their people. I’m a little bit afraid about this game.”
Southgate took those comments with a pinch of salt, although he admitted that even beating Croatia at a major tournament would not exorcise the disappointment of two years ago. “I’m sure he’s being tactically economical with the truth there,” he said.
“We’ve had three really tight games with them with very little between the teams all three times. In their last game they left [Chelsea’s Mateo] Kovacic on the bench which tells you a little bit about the quality they have. There’s quite an interesting contrast really. They have hugely experienced players right throughout the team who have played big matches, and we’re right at the other end of the scale: very young with a lot of energy but still learning and improving.”
While England will be hoping home advantage will mean they end up topping the group to set up a last-16 tie in Dublin, that is likely to be against one out of Germany, France and Portugal. Southgate was reluctant to look that far ahead but admitted that, with the semi-finals and final also at Wembley, this represents a great chance for his team to make history.
“Everyone else can work through that like they had to in Russia,” he said. “It was a bit like: do we want to be top seeds for this draw? In the end you want to try and win every game you play and at least have control of your destiny. Then fortune will take you wherever it takes you.
“At a tournament you have to have a strategy to get out of the group – that’s three games not one – and then you go from there. We want to make Wembley somewhere that teams fear coming and we do that by the level of our performance.”
In a complicated draw procedure in which 36 countries were represented at the Romexpo in a rain-sodden Bucharest, Wales were placed in Group A and face a 3,000-mile trip to play their opening match against Switzerland in Baku on 13 June before meeting Turkey in the Azerbaijani capital four days later.
Ryan Giggs’s side then travel to Rome to face Italy in their final group stage match on 21 June. The former Manchester United midfielder admitted Roberto Mancini’s side will start as favourites.
“I think they are and that’s not disrespectful to Turkey and Switzerland because they are both good teams,” he said. “But because of their history and their performances in qualifying – 10 wins out of 10 and scoring lots of goals – Italy will be looking to win the group.”
Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland also have hopes of making it to the finals via the play-offs and will be placed into Group E with Spain, Sweden and Poland if they are successful.
Uefa has said it does not expect any more incidents of racism to mar the tournament despite a number of issues during qualifying. Bulgaria were forced to play their match against Czech Republic earlier this month behind closed doors and fined 75,000 euros after England players were racially abused by a section of home supporters during the 6-0 win in Sofia in October, while there were also accusations of racism during Sweden’s recent match against Romania in Bucharest.
“In our experience the Euro has always been a very festive event, at least within the stadiums,” said its vice-president, Giorgio Marchetti. “We are confident that this particular atmosphere will take priority over stupid and sometimes criminal things that unfortunately from time to time happen in football and we never want to see in our sport.”