England v Croatia: Back a quick start for Three Lions

Paul Higham thinks England can make a fast start and lead Croatia at half-time in their Euro 2020 opener at Wembley.

England expects from Southgate's young lions

It's here! And there's actually some genuine excitement flowing even as I'm typing out this preview to England's opening game of Euro 2020 against Croatia.

We've waited a year, which has really helped Gareth Southgate with Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham all flourishing in the last 12 months, but as much as we're ridiculously excited for the teams to walk out at Wembley, this just simply wouldn't be England without some notes of caution.

Firstly, England have never won their opening game at the European Championship (D5 L4), while Croatia are unbeaten in their first games in this competition (W4 D1).

More important than history, though, is the present, and the big problem for Southgate is that he just doesn't have a settled starting XI to select for such a big game. He says he knows 10 of the 11 but there's still no real clarity on what system he'll play, let alone what players.

Covering for Harry Maguire's absence is a big question, whether to risk Jordan Henderson from the start after just the one appearance since February, and just how in the world will he squeeze the abundance of attacking talent he has at his disposal into one team.

I think Grealish starts, but elsewhere does he start the in-form up-and-comers Foden and Mount, or the more tried-and-tested Sterling and Rashford. And where does Sancho fit in!?

It's not talked about much, but having five subs in this tournament could be a game-changer for England given how much attacking threat they have, and being able to, for instance, bring on Sterling, Rashford, Sancho, Calvert-Lewin is a bench of reinforcements few other countries could match.

Can Croatia provide Wembley heartbreak again?

It may sound a bit harsh but the winning window for Croatia looks to be closing with their top stars such as Luka Modric growing old pretty quickly. That extra year waiting for Euro 2020 has done them as much harm as it has done England good.

It's a sixth European Championship and fifth in a row for Croatia, who have never been beyond the quarter-final stage of this. They've just two wins out of nine (D2 L5) coming into the tournament, with those victories coming against Malta and Cyprus, so it's hardly sparkling form.

Zlatko Dalic's side do have those happy memories of beating England at the World Cup, and the likes of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic are still around.

They've also caused Wembley heartbreak before with that infamous 3-2 Wembley win that cost the Three Lions a spot at Euro 2008 - in Steve McClaren's 'Wally with the brolly' moment.

That's ancient history now, of course, and if England fans want to point to a more promising statistic then maybe it's in the fact Croatia have lost to the eventual winners in three of their last four major tournaments.

England big favourites v Croatia on stats and form

The hosts are desperately short at 1.62 but they have won the last six in a row, conceding just once, while at home they've lost just once in 16 and have never been beaten (in 90 minutes) at Wembley in the two major tournaments they've hosted.

That World Cup win was Croatia's only one in the last five meetings and their form means that they're rightly 5.5 outsiders. They will be a far more experienced international side than England's young lions though, but the draw at 3.6 should be their limit.

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Away from home they've had issues of late with just one win in nine, and England should fancy their chances early as Croatia have conceded a first half goal in their last eight away games.

Croatia have been behind in six of the last seven at half-time, which brings in England's chances of leading at the break at 2.2. The Three Lions have led at the break in five of the last eight and haven't conceded a first-half goal in their last six.

If you're looking for any in-play clues, it's interesting to note that in the other two meetings at major tournaments the team that scored first went on to lose the game.

That was also the case in one of the two Nations League meetings in 2018, so it may be worth backing against whoever scores first on the in-play markets on the sportsbook or exchange.

Kane a backable price, get on Croatian cards

The first game of a tournament is always a tricky puzzle to solve, but although there'll naturally be a few nerves around for England fans, this Croatia side just simply isn't as good as the one they faced at the World Cup.

Croatia sit 14th in the world - and England have disposed of sides outside the top 10 with ease, winning their last 12 matches while scoring over three goals a game on average.

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That's not to say it'll be easy, things with England never are, but Southgate has so many attacking options who can pass, dribble and get in behind with raw pace, and that will trouble this Croatian defence.

Harry Kane's got 13 international goals at Wembley but because goals aren't really fancied, he's a very backable 2.0 to score anytime, especially given he's on the penalties and this England side offer so many threats in runners getting into the box.

It's not exactly rocket sceince but Kane may not be this big again to score for the rest of the tournament.

On that front, Croatia may well have more of the ball, but England will chase them down and will be more than lively on the break and the visiting midfield and central defence doesn't have the best array of pace - therefore we're expecting them to collect more than a couple of bookings.

Taking the 2.0 on Croatia having more bookings than England makes a lot of sense.

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