England vs Croatia: Crunch match vindicates Nations League's criticised format

Tom Kershaw

“There is no space for it in football,” Jurgen Klopp said when the Uefa Nations League was first announced. Nor did Gareth Southgate seem the slightest tad plussed by the prospect of relegation from League A Group 1.

Another lucrative yet ultimately meaningless scheme, devised in a dark lair by a group of sunken-eyed signet-ringed overlords in the name of football’s four major religious symbols - £, $, €, ¥.

And, perhaps, away from the pitch, the Uefa Nations League is still nothing more than a profitable venture, adding capital to hollow matches by way of manufactured hysteria. The winners of the finals in Portugal next summer will line their pockets with nearly £10m. Even League C Scotland will snaffle a paltry £1m for their contribution.

But for both players and supporters, England’s decisive tie against Croatia at Wembley shows how the competition has turned once futile friendlies into far than a frivolity. After all, if it were, then why was England’s heroic thumping of Spain last month hailed as the defining win of Gareth Southgate’s England career, not merely a superficial one?

And now England’s conquerors are coming home in a top-level match so riven with little subplots it’s like the flashback filler episode in your favourite TV series played out to the humming of David Baddiel’s immutable soundtrack. Somewhat tedious but far more intricate and exciting than the generic hogwash on your TV guide which a routine friendly might offer.

Yes, it’s at Wembley not in Kazan. Yes, it’s a secondary Uefa scheme which can’t make amends for the horror of the Luzhniki. But still it offers so much more than Thursday evening’s procession against the USA.

There's the very real prospect of promotion and a summertime spree in Vale Do Lobo playing against Europe's greatest teams, or relegation and future freezes against Poland and Iceland in League B - and if that is to occur, the warm stretches of the Mediterranean will certainly be missed.

It's why the match won't be another Christmas jolly where idyllic debuts are afforded to Callum Wilson, Lewis Dunk and Alex McCarthy like baubles to a tree. Both managers will select full-strength side precisely because this isn't the amble of the other night and there is something very real and material on offer, as well as pride.

It’s why Joe Gomez has been hurried back by England’s physios. Why Jordan Henderson, John Stones, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling are all expected to start. And why Harry Kane has been happily rested rather than run ragged like a drooping retriever.

Croatia - minus the injured Ivan Rakitic - arrive on the back of their own enthralling Nations League victory against Spain with the lust to stick the second dagger into England’s players, and more so to the heart of the country whose arrogance so greatly aggrieved them in Russia.

Croatia's stunning victory against Spain on Thursday may never have materialised without added incentive (EPA)

A team desperately seeking to sustain momentum and feature in Portugal next June as venerated contenders rather than be known as the flashing pan of a golden generation gifted with arguably the two best central midfielders in football.

The comparison between Sunday’s clash with Croatia and Thursday’s dolly against America provides the perfect, if not hyperbolic, presidential style advert as to why one candidate has so greatly surpassed the other.

Why otherwise utterly unbearable international breaks have taken on real stories of real significance. The fact that Scotland’s 4-0 thrashing away against Albania to keep their Nations League hopes alive offers more in the way of excitement than a friendly between Brazil and Uruguay at the Emirates is a testament to that.

So on Sunday afternoon there will be a very real cacophony which consumes Wembley, not like the lonely tooting of a tourist’s vuvuzela such as at the King Power Stadium in September when England laboured to a meaningless victory against Switzerland, Honduras or Honolulu State.

Whatever it was, before the Nations League nobody really cared. But now, we do.