Gareth Southgate believes his inexperienced England squad are up for the challenge of handling the quirks of playing at an empty stadium and exacting revenge against World Cup semi-final foes Croatia.
Three months after meeting at a packed Luzhniki, the nations will face one another at the empty Stadion HNK Rijeka as the hosts complete a UEFA ground ban for having a swastika on the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.
Five-hundred hardy England supporters have reportedly still made the trip to Croatia in the hope of catching a glimpse of a Nations League clash that will see changes to the line-ups from their semi-final meeting.
Southgate is expecting an odd atmosphere and feels for England fans, especially as a number had booked travel and accommodation before they revealed in January that the match would be played behind closed doors.
“It will be a strange experience,” the England manager said on the eve of the Group A4 meeting. “I guess we effectively do that every day of our lives – we play football in front of a handful of people watching, so it’s not totally unique.
“But for a match situation, in an international, very different.
“I am sure Croatia feel the same. For them, not to have the encouragement of what is an incredibly passionate support will be very different for them.
“So it’s a shame especially for our travelling fans, who were brilliant for us all summer and so many of whom haven’t missed an England game for years.
“That’s unfortunate for them in particular.”
It is understood that players were sent footage of last year’s La Liga clash between Barcelona and Las Palmas at a deserted Nou Camp to prepare them for the mood of Friday’s encounter.
Southgate smiled when asked if he had warned his players about using colourful language – “we’ve spent two years encouraging them to speak!” – and trusts his young players to step up to the mark against the World Cup runners-up.
James Maddison, Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho – the first player born this millennium to get a call-up – are with the senior side for the first time, while Ben Chilwell could make his first start after fellow left-backs Danny Rose and Luke Shaw withdrew.
James Tarkowski and Alex McCarthy have also left with complaints of their own, compounding existing injury issues that meant Southgate laughed off Croatia’s issues, despite their 6-0 loss to Spain last time out.
“Their team looks pretty strong to me,” the England boss told BBC Radio 5 Live, having heard that opposite number Zlatko Dalic named his starting line-up in his own press conference.
“We’ve also had effective retirements and our fair share of injuries this week.
“I am looking at their midfield – Modric, Rakitic, Kovacic, with Rebic and Perisic. So, I think they’re OK!
“So, it’s a really good test for us. We’ve obviously got a different team from the team that played in the semi-final and it’s a good challenge for us.
“That game after 90 minutes was 1-1, so let’s see what we can do tomorrow.
“These big matches against top teams we’re learning a huge amount from.”
And while Southgate’s squad cannot match the hosts’ experience, the England manager scoffed at the suggestion his side would be experimental in Rijeka.
“No, we’re here to try and get a result,” he added. “The team we play will be a team we believe in, whoever is ready to start.
“There’s nobody in the squad that’s here that we we’re not thinking of putting into the team.
“It’s not experimentation, it’s players we believe in.
“Players that, OK, in a lot of cases are relatively inexperienced at the highest level, but players we’ve enjoyed working with, have shown in training this week that they can handle this level and we’ll pick a team that we think is the best one to win the game.”
Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson has been given the nod over Liverpool rival Alisson for Brazil’s friendly on Friday against Saudi Arabia.
Ederson, 25, admitted in a press conference earlier this week that Brazil team-mate Alisson was ahead of him in the national team pecking order.
But the City number one, who has made just one senior international appearance, has been told by Brazil boss Tite that he will start in Riyadh.
“(On Monday), just after training, he (Tite) talked to me and Alisson,” Ederson told a press conference during their training camp at Tottenham’s Enfield base.
“He said I’m going to play the first game and Alisson the second. I was very happy and I feel prepared.”
Ederson, who joined City from Benfica for £35million in July 2017, played second fiddle at Russia 2018 to Alisson, who started every match.
Alisson is in his first season at Liverpool after his £67m summer move from Roma and the two goalkeepers went head-to-head for their respective clubs in last Sunday’s goalless Premier League draw at Anfield.
Brazil have beaten the USA 2-0 and El Salvador 5-0 since losing to Belgium in the last eight of the World Cup in Kazan.
Despite their quarter-final exit, Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho said Tite’s squad had learned a lot from Russia 2018 and are looking to regain momentum before hosting next summer’s 2019 Copa America.
“(The World Cup) is a tournament that demands a lot,” Coutinho said. “All the pressure it puts on you requires a lot psychologically.
“But sure enough, the players leave more experienced. I feel a bit more experienced after having participated in a World Cup and now we have started a new cycle.
“I’m very happy to be here one more time. Thinking ahead, we have important competitions. The Copa America is next and until then we have to form a strong base.”
Hannover midfielder Walace has been recalled to the squad for Friday’s game and next Tuesday’s friendly against Argentina in Jeddah, while Barcelona forward Malcom, Bordeaux defender Pablo and Gremio goalkeeper Phelipe have all received their first senior call-ups.
Saudi Arabia, preparing for the 2019 Asian Cup which starts in the United Arab Emirates in January, bowed out at the group stage at Russia 2018.
Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side lost to the hosts and Uruguay before beating Egypt in their final match.
England play Croatia in Rijeka on Friday night in their second Nations League game – less than 100 days after suffering World Cup semi-final heartbreak against their hosts.
Here, we take a look at five memorable meetings between the two sides.
Euro 2004: Croatia 2-4 England
Two goals from Wayne Rooney proved more than enough to secure Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England safe passage into the quarter-finals.
Croatia took an early lead in Lisbon through Niko Kovac but Paul Scholes levelled with a header for the Three Lions.
Rooney then struck either side of half-time, with Frank Lampard adding the fourth after Igor Tudor had reduced the arrears.
Euro 2008 qualifier: Croatia 2-0 England
A bizarre Gary Neville own goal helped heap pressure on England boss Steve McClaren as his side struggled to secure qualification for the European Championships.
Eduardo headed Croatia in front in Zagreb before Neville’s back-pass hit a divot and bounced over the foot of goalkeeper Paul Robinson as he looked to clear, resulting in a calamitous moment for the away side.
Having drawn 0-0 with Macedonia at Old Trafford four days earlier, the pressure was building on McClaren to put things right.
Euro 2008 qualifier: England 2-3 Croatia
Defeat in Russia in their penultimate qualifier meant England needed something against Slaven Bilic’s Croatia at Wembley. But instead it was another evening to forget for McClaren, who watched on forlornly from under an umbrella as his England side were beaten in the rain.
A terrible error from goalkeeper Scott Carson allowed Niko Kranjcar to put Croatia in front before Ivica Olic doubled their advantage inside 15 minutes. England rallied as Lampard and Peter Crouch scored, only for Mladen Petric to settle the match in favour of the visitors.
McClaren was asked to clear his desk soon after.
World Cup qualifier: Croatia 1-4 England
Fast-forward 10 months and England, under new manager Fabio Capello, were flying in their World Cup qualification group.
Enter 19-year-old Theo Walcott, who stunned Zagreb with a hat-trick at the Maksimir Stadium.
The winger scored the opening two goals either side of Robert Kovac’s red card for the hosts and took home the match ball after adding his third following Rooney’s well-taken effort.
England would seal qualification for the World Cup in South Africa with a 5-1 thrashing of Croatia a year later.
World Cup semi-final 2018: Croatia 2-1 England (after extra-time)
The last meeting between the two nations will still be etched on the memory of both sets of supporters. With a place in the World Cup final at stake, Kieran Trippier’s stunning early free-kick gave Gareth Southgate’s men the advantage in Moscow.
Harry Kane then hit a post before Croatia rallied.
Ivan Perisic equalised to take the game into extra-time, where Mario Mandzukic capitalised on some static defending to score the winner and break English hearts.