It is not an occasion to remotely compare to a World Cup semi-final, it is not even a fixture being played in front of fans, but England believe they have been given the opportunity tomorrow night of exorcising the demons of losing to Croatia in Russia.
Ahead of a Nations League fixture which his side cannot afford to lose if they want to avoid demotion from the top tier of Uefa’s fledgling competition, John Stones spoke from the heart as he explained the crushing disappointment the squad felt in the summer and the chance they now have. They were agonisingly close from reaching the World Cup final 93 days ago in a feverish Moscow.
“It still plays on your mind, it was such a big occasion for us as players and the nation, the nation was all behind us,” Stones said. “As players, we lived it. It was difficult to take. I don’t think anyone will lie about that in the squad.”
That difficulty was evident from the manner in which Stones spoke, before he added: “It’s now a new chapter and a new start for us to play against Croatia and we want to set things straight and get back onto a winning run.”
Football never stands still and now Stones is preparing to face Croatia again in a fixture which will have its own unique challenges before England travel to face Spain on Monday in another tough Nations League match.
Gareth Southgate, the England manager, is considering a change of formation. It would be a move away from the 3-5-2 he used at the World Cup to such effect. He knew it was always something of an emergency measure. If England are to beat leading nations such as Croatia they need to eventually alter their approach, which is why he is mulling over a 4-3-3.
If that happens, it may be Kieran Trippier who drops out at right-back, because it seems that Kyle Walker will play – either at right-back or as the right-sided central defender – ahead of Joe Gomez, with Ben Chilwell earning a first competitive start. The 21-year-old is the only specialist left-back in the squad, with both Luke Shaw and Danny Rose having withdrawn and, while Trippier could be moved across, it seems the specialist, Chilwell, will be selected.
In midfield, it appears that Ross Barkley’s confident resurgence at Chelsea under manager Maurizio Sarri will be rewarded with a first appearance for England since May 2016 when he came on in a friendly against Australia for the last of his 22 caps. It will be his first competitive start for more than three years – when he was in the team that beat Lithuania away in a Euro qualifier in October 2015.
That game was also played in a tiny stadium, but this will be a far stranger occasion with no supporters allowed in, despite up to 400 England fans making the trip.
Croatia were ordered to play this behind closed doors after a swastika was marked on the pitch before a European Championship qualifier against Italy in 2015 – which itself was played with fans being excluded because of racist chants.
They reacted by moving the match away from Zagreb and to the temporary Stadion HNK Rijeka, with a capacity of 8,217, in the port on Kvarner Bay on the northern Adriatic coast. It is picturesque, but it will be surreal – the 988th senior England international and the first to not be played in front of fans.
“We spoke about it during the week, how to handle it, what we’re coming into and that we’re coming into this game with none of our fans and especially none of their fans, which will play a bigger part on their behalf,” Stones said.
“It will be a strange situation. I’ve not played in an empty stadium since going back to FA Youth Cup days. I don’t think we will focus on it too much. We trained all week on what to do on the pitch and not to focus on what’s off the pitch.”
Mario Mandzukic, who beat Stones to the ball to score the extra-time semi-final goal to break English hearts, will not be in the Croatia team, having retired from international football, but there will be plenty of familiar faces: from Dejan Lovren to Luka Modric.
“It’s something I’ve reflected on and I’ve dwelled on it after the tournament,” Stones said. “The tournament in general didn’t seem real, straight after it. It was a strange experience, really, being in such a bubble then coming home to see how everyone got behind us back home. It all came down to that game, which was one step away from the final.”
Enough of the past. It is time to move on, as Stones again acknowledged: “Week in, week out, you want to play against the best players, the best teams, to prove to yourself you can do it, and deserve to be there, and games like these don’t come round too often.
“When you’re back at your clubs, you’re waiting to come back on internationals, you have to grab it with both hands when you can, and give everything you’ve got for it,” Stones concluded.
Hopefully England will do just that and, with it, banish at least some of those demons.