Croatia begin their UEFA Nations League voyage on Tuesday as they travel to Elche to take on the sublime talents of Spain.
Luis Enrique’s side are on a high after the former Barcelona manager’s reign got off to a bright start with a 2-1 win at Wembley over England on Saturday.
Zlatko Dalic’s side, meanwhile, are back in competitive action after a superb summer saw them reach the World Cup final, where they were beaten 4-2 by France.
Ahead of what should be a fascinating encounter, we look at three talking points:
ENRIQUE ERA ENRICHES SPAIN
It would probably be a bit much to say the beginning of the Enrique reign placed a band aid over Spain’s gaping World Cup wound, but it definitely started the healing process.
And it’s certainly a good idea to get the Spanish media back onside, with La Roja’s performance at Wembley having the Spanish press practically salivating at the prospect of a nation getting back to their best – the country that won the 2010 World Cup and back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012.
“This is the new Spain”, hailed the country’s top sports daily Marca while Diario AS commented: “A triumph that opens the Nations League and closes the nightmare of the World Cup”.
An embarrassing World Cup bookended a disastrous six-year period since Spain were crowned Euro 2012 champions.
At the 2014 World Cup they endured a humiliating group stage exit, failing to recover from a 5-1 hammering at the hands of the Dutch in their opening game. Two years later in defence of their European crown they won just once as they were dumped out by limited Italy in the last 16. Now they are rebuilding following a timid exit in Russia, failing to recover from a tumultuous start to the tournament when Julen Lopetegui’s leaked move to Real Madrid was deemed an unforgiveable sin and he was jettisoned before a ball had been kicked.
But they still have the individual talent – across the board they arguably possess the most talented squad in international football. Saul Niguez, the Atletico Madrid midfielder who didn’t play a single minute at the World Cup, embodies the new approach: tenacious, direct and supremely skilful.
Spain just needed a solid structure to be established and a confident and experienced coach to get them back on track. In Enrique, they appear to have that.
ARE CROATIA NOW AN ELITE NATION?
In quite stark contrast, Croatia enjoyed a stunning World Cup.
Dalic’s side were the darlings of Russia, with Luka Modric and Co finally able to eclipse the ‘Golden Generation’ who had made such an impression as a fledgling nation back at France ’98.
As La Roja buckled under the strain of the Lopetegui scandal and a host of star names underperformed – Croatia rose to every considerable challenge placed before them.
From Nikola Kalinic being sent home from after refusing to go on as a substitute in their opening 2-0 win against Nigeria, the Vatreni then had to go the distance in their three knockout games leading up to the final.
They twice had to show their mental fortitude in penalty shootout wins over Denmark and Russia – the former seeing captain Modric missing a spot kick to win it in extra time before burying his penalty in the shootout.
They fell heartbreaking at the final hurdle as star-studded France proved a step too far. So where do they go now? Establishing themselves as a truly elite force must be the target.
With a cast that boasts some of Europe’s top talents – Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, as well as Mario Mandzukic, Mateo Kovacic, Sime Vrsaljko, Marcelo Brozovic and Marco Pjaca – they have to strive for stardom.
Their Russia heroics saw them vault up to fourth from 17th in the FIFA world rankings. That assisted in them being placed in the top-tier League A of the Nations League. Success in this fledgling competition and even at Euro 2020 should be the height of their ambitions.
MODRIC MAGIC CAN CONJURE BALLON D’OR
Modric’s quest for individual recognition on the global stage can ensure Croatia’s standards don’t drop following their fantastic showing at the World Cup finals.
The Madrid magician was the life and soul of his nation in Russia – scoring twice in the group stages and netting crucial penalties in shootout victories over Denmark and Russia.
More than that, he carried the creative and leadership burden, while fellow high-profile midfielder Rakitic actually seemed to struggle with being thrust into the limelight – he is able to operate more from the shadows at Barcelona where clubmates Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho attract more of the column inches.
It’s somewhat the same for 5ft 8in midfielder Modric at Madrid, yet the diminutive dynamo seemed to grow in stature with each game. Hungry for more responsibility and pressure.
His exploits, plus a fine domestic season during 2017/18 – ne notched six assists in La Liga (a joint high since arriving in Spain) – have led to increasing belief that he can challenge for the Balon d’Or and help break the duopoly Messi and Cristaino Ronaldo have held over the trophy for the past decade.
Mohamed Salah will have something to say about that too as Liverpool’s explosive Egyptian will also be in the running to upstage Ronaldo and Messi.
But more magic from Modric in the Nations League – starting with orchestrating an eye-catching triumph over Spain – will add to his cause and the feeling that he could conjure the impossible, toppling the game’s mighty duo.
Alli withdrew from the Three Lions squad on Monday ahead of the game with Switzerland after picking up an injury in Saturday’s defeat to Spain.
But Southgate believes the 22-year-old will make Spurs’ Saturday lunchtime kick-off with Liverpool.
Southgate said at his press conference: “He has just had a minor strain and should be fine for his club at the weekend I would think, but tomorrow’s game will come too quickly.”
Alli played 90 minutes at Wembley on Saturday and Southgate was impressed with the Tottenham player’s contribution.
The manager added: “I thought his performance was good, in terms of his retention of the ball I thought he was improved in that area, his work without the ball has been good over the last six months with us.
“He makes critical forward runs, like everybody else we learned a lot from the game.”
Southgate, who led England to their best World Cup finish since 1990 in the summer, was keen to avoid talk of a new contract.
“We have had initial discussions as I said, that has been it,” he said.
“For me I have to focus on the job in hand. I am contracted for the next 22 months and my focus is on tomorrow night and then building this team to be as competitive as it can be.
“This summer was an incredible experience for everybody, so they are the games that everyone wants to be involved in, beyond that I don’t want to get into details because that will be a distraction ahead of the game.”
Despite their impressive summer performance, the Three Lions go into Tuesday’s game against the Swiss aiming to avoid four successive defeats for the first time in their history following losses against Croatia, Belgium and Spain.
Southgate is not concerned about that record, however.
“Not many England sides have played a World Cup semi-final and third-placed play-off so these stats can be whatever you want them to be really,” he added.
“From our point of view we don’t want to be in the habit of losing matches but to play three teams of the quality we have in the last three matches is a very rare occurrence in international football so we have to focus on our performances, and improving as a team.
“We have got to keep focused on the things we can control.”
The World Footballers’ Association along with FIFA have announced their shortlist of the best players for the 2017/18 season.
La Liga’s big three clubs – Real (11), Barca (10) and Atletico Madrid (3) – have 24 representatives on the list, which has been accumulated following the voting process conducted by 25,000 players across 65 countries.
Barca have Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Yerry Mina (now at Everton), Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta (since retired), Ivan Rakitic, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho on the list.
At Madrid the candidates are Keylor Navas, Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric; Isco, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, who is now at Juventus.
Surprisingly there is no Gareth Bale, who finished last season at a high level and scored two crucial goals in the Champions League final.
Thibaut Courtois is also on the list and he will do battle with his club-mate Navas.
Last season’s FIFPro World XI was: Gianluigi Buffon, Dani Alves, Ramos, Leonardo Bonucci, Marcelo, Kroos, Modric, Iniesta, Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar.
London is the venue for the announcement of the 2018 FIFPro FIFA World XI, to be held on September 24.
Below are the nominations for each category:
Gianluigi Buffon – Italy, Juventus/Paris Saint-Germain; Thibaut Courtois – Belgium, Chelsea/Real Madrid; David De Gea – Spain, Manchester United; Keylor Navas – Costa Rica, Real Madrid; Marc-Andre ter Stegen – Germany, Barcelona.
Jordi Alba – Spain, Barcelona; Dani Alves – Brazil, Paris Saint-Germain; Dani Carvajal – Spain, Real Madrid; Giorgio Chiellini – Italy, Juventus; Virgil van Dijk – Netherlands, Southampton/Liverpool; Diego Godin – Uruguay, Atletico Madrid; Mats Hummels – Germany, Bayern Munich; Joshua Kimmich – Germany, Bayern Munich; Dejan Lovren – Croatia, Liverpool; Marcelo – Brazil, Real Madrid; Yerry Mina – Colombia, Barcelona/Everton; Benjamin Pavard – France, Stuttgart; Gerard Pique – Spain, Barcelona; Sergio Ramos – Spain, Real Madrid; Thiago Silva – Brazil, Paris Saint-Germain; Kieran Trippier – England, Tottenham; Samuel Umtiti – France, Barcelona; Raphael Varane – France, Real Madrid; Sime Vrsaljko – Croatia, Atletico Madrid/Inter Milan; Kyle Walker – England, Manchester City.
Sergio Busquets – Spain, Barcelona; Casemiro – Brazil, Real Madrid; Philippe Coutinho – Brazil, Liverpool/Barcelona; Kevin De Bruyne – Belgium, Manchester City; Eden Hazard – Belgium, Chelsea; Andres Iniesta – Spain, Barcelona/Vissel Kobe; Isco – Spain, Real Madrid; N’Golo Kante – France, Chelsea; Toni Kroos – Germany, Real Madrid; Nemanja Matic – Serbia, Manchester United; Luka Modric – Croatia, Real Madrid; Paul Pogba – France, Manchester United; Ivan Rakitic – Croatia, Barcelona; David Silva – Spain, Manchester City; Arturo Vidal – Chile, Bayern Munich /Barcelona.
Karim Benzema – France, Real Madrid; Edinson Cavani – Uruguay, Paris Saint-Germain; Paulo Dybala – Argentina, Juventus; Antoine Griezmann – France, Atletico Madrid; Harry Kane – England, Tottenham; Robert Lewandowski – Poland, Bayern Munich; Romelu Lukaku – Belgium, Manchester United; Mario Mandzukic – Croatia, Juventus; Sadio Mane – Senegal, Liverpool; Kylian Mbappe – France, Paris Saint-Germain; Lionel Messi – Argentina, Barcelona; Neymar – Brazil, Paris Saint-Germain; Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal, Real Madrid/Juventus; Mohamed Salah – Egypt, Liverpool; Luis Suarez – Uruguay, Barcelona.