Euro 2020 draw: 'Favourable draw but black cloud on horizon for England'

Gareth Southgate and Zlatko Dalic
Gareth Southgate's England will face Zlatko Dalic's Croatia at Euro 2020

England's Euro 2020 finals draw is packed with advantages - but it also came with a potentially painful sting in the tail for manager Gareth Southgate's aspirations to win a first major tournament in 54 years.

Southgate will want to take England one step further than the run to the World Cup semi-final in Russia in 2018 - and playing every group game at Wembley gives them the perfect platform.

England will face Moscow conquerors and sometime bogey side Croatia in their first Group D game at Wembley on 14 June before facing the Czech Republic and the winner of a play-off path that includes Scotland, Israel, Norway and Serbia.

This, on the surface, looks a favourable and manageable draw - but there may just be a large black cloud on England's horizon.

Southgate and the FA, preparing for those big Wembley games that will grip the nation, will be delighted to miss some of Europe's big football beasts in the group but it may only be a temporary reprieve.

If England emerge from Group D as winners, and they will be favourites, they will face the sort of opponents that have so often been their undoing and downfall when the pressure has been on in the past.

In this eventuality, they will face the runners-up in Group F, which means their last 16 opponents in Dublin could be World Cup holders France, current European champions Portugal or the old foe Germany.

The very names hold uncomfortable memories for England and will provide the acid test of Southgate's claim that they are moving closer to that elite group.

England have struggled with the class acts of European international football before as proved by Croatia in Russia and the emerging Netherlands at the inaugural Uefa Nations League in Portugal last June.

All opponents will be wary of the damage England's superb attack, built around Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, can do but they will also relish facing that vulnerable rearguard, especially if they have the quality of France, Germany and a Portugal team still inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo, who won that Uefa Nations League in their own country.

England have been presented with the time-honoured tournament dilemma that it would actually be better to finish second in their group but Southgate will know that such manipulation is impossible and victory in the opening game against the dangerous Croats is essential to set the nation's mood and the momentum of his team.

Take Croatia lightly at your peril

Media playback is not supported on this device

Mandzukic nets extra-time winner against England

The group itself has its hazards, none more than Croatia, who may be past the peak that took them to the World Cup Final in 2018 where they lost to France, but who have a knack of pulling together as a united force at tournament time.

Croatia remain sixth in the Fifa rankings, two places behind England, and still have the inspirational Luka Modric to call on. Like the team itself, Modric may be past his best but take Croatia lightly at your peril.

They have risen to the occasion against England in the past, not just in Russia but also infamously at a rain-lashed Wembley in November 2007 when - even though they had already qualified - they won 3-2 to end Steve McLaren's hopes of reaching Euro 2008 and his time as manager.

England's post-World Cup meetings with Croatia ended in a goalless draw behind closed doors in Rijeka in 2018 before Southgate's men recorded a 2-1 win at Wembley last November, although the visitors led with only 12 minutes left.

Croatia will not be daunted by the Wembley stage. They have shown they can rise to it and England must beware.

Media playback is not supported on this device

England manager Gareth Southgate singles out Croatia as key opponents at Euro 2020

As for the Czech Republic, England and Southgate have had a very recent reminder of what they can do, although they will also have grim and contrasting memories of their last visit to Wembley, where this group game will be played.

They inflicted England's only loss in their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, a fully deserved 2-1 win in Prague in October, although Raheem Sterling's hat-trick saw the Czechs on the wrong end of a 5-0 rout at Wembley in March 2019.

Even the final team in England's group, decided via the play-offs, has the mouth-watering prospect of a possible meeting with Scotland, who will vie with Israel, Norway and Serbia for the right to fight it out at Euro 2020.

England's draw is full of the usual intrigue and the manner of their qualification, along with growing confidence and comfort at this level plus the convenience of all group games at Wembley, means Southgate will have every right to be optimistic.

Just one look beyond that group, which England actually should win despite maybe harbouring that secret preference for finishing second, will see some very large bumps in the road as Southgate tries to navigate a path to Euro 2020 glory.