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Southgate expects youthful England to cope with Croatia’s empty stadium


Rijeka (Croatia) (AFP) – Gareth Southgate has backed England’s young guns to deal with the “strange” situation of playing in an empty stadium when they bid to avenge their World Cup semi-final loss against Croatia.

Southgate’s side were beaten by Croatia in Russia earlier this year when they stood on the cusp of their first World Cup final appearance since 1966.

That heartbreaking loss won’t be erased by a victory in Friday’s Nations League clash in Rijeka, but it would at least prove to England manager Southgate that his youthful team are continuing to develop.

Southgate has selected two teenagers — Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and Chelsea’s Mason Mount, currently on loan at Derby — in his squad, while Leicester’s James Maddison has been called up for the first time.

Watford’s Nathaniel Chalobah is another hoping to win his first cap, with Leicester’s Ben Chilwell and Tottenham’s Harry Winks aiming to win their second.

“The team we play will be a team we believe in, whoever is ready to start,” Southgate told reporters on Thursday.

“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.

“We’ll pick a team that we think is the best one to win the game.”

It will be an especially unusual test for England given the Stadion HNK Rijeka will be deserted while the hosts complete a UEFA ground ban for having a swastika image on the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.

It is believed Southgate showed his players footage of last year’s La Liga clash between Barcelona and Las Palmas at an empty Camp Nou to prepare them for the stadium silence.

– ‘Very different’ –

“It will be a strange experience. 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,” Southgate said.

“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.”

Croatia finished as World Cup runners-up after losing the final to France and Southgate is expecting another stern examination from Zlatko Dalic’s team.

“I am looking at their midfield – Modric, Rakitic, Kovacic, with Rebic and Perisic. I think they’re OK!” he said.

“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.

“These big matches against top teams we’re learning a huge amount from.”

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