England manager Gareth Southgate said his inexperienced side must look to perform at their “regular level” despite the pressure of playing in a World Cup semi-final.
England face Croatia in Moscow on Wednesday after reaching the last four of a major tournament for the first time since Euro ‘96, when Southgate himself missed a penalty in a shootout defeat against Germany.
He is now trying to minimise potential distractions as his young team prepare to take the next step in their bid to repeat the 1966 World Cup triumph at home.
Southgate told reporters on Tuesday that the most important thing was to keep things as normal as possible.
“We’ve been tucked away in our base camp preparing the same way,” he said. “Our preparation for the game has been identical. I think it’s important there’s consistency leading into matches like this.
“You don’t have to change things, you don’t have to do things differently. You don’t have to find another level, generally speaking.
“As a player if you can perform at your regular level in these games then very often that’s more than enough because people can be inhibited in big matches.”
Before their arrival in Russia, England had not won a knockout game since the 2006 World Cup.
They overcame Colombia on penalties in the last 16 in Russia after conceding a stoppage-time equaliser, before a 2-0 victory against Sweden sent England through to a first World Cup semi-final appearance in 28 years.
“We came here to enjoy our football. All the way through we have been one of the youngest teams in the tournament, the least experienced team, but we were never quite sure how far this team could go,” said Southgate.
“The hunger in the players has been apparent for all to see. We have dealt with difficult situations in games.”
- ‘Next step on the journey’ -
England thumped Croatia 5-1 at Wembley the last time the two nations met, in a World Cup qualifier in September 2009, but Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic are the only survivors from that match on either side.
With an average squad age of just over 26 and fewer combined caps than any other participating team, Southgate knows there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“We’re going into a semi-final but it just seems like it’s the next step on the journey,” he said.
“This team is nowhere near the level they’re going to be capable of, partly because of their age and partly because over the next few years, with us and with their clubs, they’re going to have more and more big-match experiences.
“So we’re excited about the future but we also want to make the most of the opportunity we have [on Wednesday]”
Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson is one of just five players remaining from the England squad that crashed out of the group stage four years ago in Brazil.
He will have a central role to play against a Croatia side that relies heavily on the creativity of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Rakitic, who plays for Barcelona.
“I’ve played against Modric a few times, he’s probably one of the best players I’ve played against,” said Henderson.
“It’s a massive game for us, we all know that, but there’s no need to make it bigger than what it already is.”
Excitement has reached fever-pitch levels in England, as the country dreams of Southgate’s team emulating the achievement of Alf Ramsey’s side more than half a century ago.
“We can take a lot of good things in the past in terms of ‘66 and what they achieved then,” said Henderson. “But it was a long time ago so not too many of us can remember that far back.”