It still hurts, doesn’t it?
Croatia put an end to England’s wonderful run at the World Cup over the summer, with goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic (in extra-time) cancelling out Kieran Trippier’s opener in the semi-final.
But it’s time to move on from all that, because Gareth Southgate’s lads will face Croatia once again in the UEFA Nations League, with top spot in the group up for grabs.
It’s fair to say that England up against Croatia certainly brings back some mixed emotions – and not just because of the World Cup – with the two nations once huge rivals on the international stage.
It all started back in 2006, when England were going through a somewhat transitional phase.
The so-called Golden Generation had flopped at Euro 2004 and the recent World Cup, which meant manager Sven-Goran Eriksson packed his bags and David Beckham stepped down as captain.
Steven McClaren was given the big job in mid-2006 and John Terry was made captain, while the future was pinned firmly on Wayne Rooney.
The Three Lions were drawn into qualifying Group E for Euro 2008, with the likes of Croatia, Russia and Israel seen as their biggest opponents.
Quite frankly, we were all pretty expectant.
But let’s be honest, England were rubbish under McClaren.
The writing was on the wall after only a couple of qualifiers, when England narrowly beat Macedonia 1-0 before being held to a disappointing 0-0 at Old Trafford.
But the sucker punch came days later in Zagreb.
Looking back, we were always somewhat fond of goalkeeper Paul Robinson.
He was solid, confident and seemingly an upgrade on David James.
But all of that ended when a back-pass from Gary Neville alluded the Spurs goalie as the ball struck a bobble on the pitch and rolled into the back of his net.
McClaren had underestimated Croatia, and his brave new era was coming apart at the seams with the 2-0 defeat.
But perhaps we’re being too harsh on Croatia.
While England were a mixture of stalwarts like Gerrard and Ashley Cole, mixed with youngsters such as Shaun Wright-Phillips and Theo Walcott, Croatia had the building blocks of a formidable young team with plenty of raw talent.
Brazilian born striker Eduardo da Silva – who later joined Arsenal – was backed up by future Premier League stars like Niko Kranjcar, Vedran Corluka and a fresh-faced Luka Modric.
Coaching these future stars was none other than Slaven Bilic.
By the time England faced Croatia for the final qualifying match a year later, they were in real trouble.
Croatia were guaranteed group winners, while Russia looked poised for the runners-up spot.
A defeat to Russia the month before – courtesy of two goals from Roman Pavlyuchenko – meant England needed to beat Croatia to secure their place at Euro 2008.
You know the rest, don’t you?
Scott Carson was placed in goal, fumbled Kranjcar’s effort and allowed Ivica Olic to slip home in an eventual 3-2 defeat.
Croatia made the most of their place at Euro 2008, topping Group B ahead of Germany, Poland and Austria, while the world finally saw the brilliance of Modric first-hand.
Returning home as quarter-finalists, they once again faced England in their qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup.
Reigniting their rivalry – with England under Fabio Capello – revenge came in 4-1 win in Zagreb nearly two years after their embarrassing defeat, with Walcott the hat-trick hero.
It got even better for England fans a year later, when they thrashed Bilic’s side 5-1 at Wembley to secure qualification for the World Cup in South Africa, while Croatia fell behind Ukraine in the group.
Of course, England’s World Cup campaign was woeful – to say the least – but we’ll always have Capello to thank for helping us overcome our Croatian rivals, who were deemed a bigger scalp than the likes of Scotland and Germany in that four-year period.
Following on from the summer’s semi-final knockout, perhaps the Balkan country is once again considered a big rival for the Three Lions.
READ MORE FROM THE WIDE WORLD OF DREAM TEAM:
- Is it time for Memphis Depay to give the Premier League another crack?
- Why England’s Nations League clash with Croatia will be the game of the season so far
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