Jack Grealish believes England can harness the pain of their World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia to break their opening-day duck when the sides reunite at Wembley on Sunday.
England have not won a European Championship opener in nine attempts and Zlatko Dalic’s team represent a formidable obstacle in their quest to end that run, particularly if any psychological scars remain from that agonising night in Moscow. Grealish was still two years short of a senior international debut then but remembers the emotions that came with the extra-time exit and thinks they can be deployed positively.
“I was devastated actually, watching the game,” he said. “We can definitely use it as inspiration. Croatia are a brilliant side, they have talented players all over the pitch from big clubs as well. It’s a game we’ll go into full of confidence; I feel we’ve had good preparation and I feel we’ll have a good week this week as well.
“We’ve played them a few times now and we know it’ll be a difficult game, but it’s something we’re looking forward to and we’ll cherish every moment.”
Grealish has proved his fitness by playing all bar 19 minutes of England’s warm-up matches against Austria and Romania, having joined Gareth Southgate’s camp shortly after recovering from a shin injury. A starting place against Croatia is far from certain given the squad’s depth in attacking areas, though, and Southgate has conundrums in other areas of the pitch too. The manager has tried several permutations in training this week, one of which has involved Luke Shaw being deployed on the left side of a back three.
Defensive discipline will be critical over the coming month and Grealish feels that is something he is beginning to bring to the table alongside his game-turning flair. “I think I can get better at it. When I come here I seem to run more in games than I do at [Aston] Villa. I’m not sure why that is, but I still think it is something I can improve on. When I first came into the camp I sat down with the manager for an hour or so and asked what I could improve to get into his side. I went away and worked on that.”
Southgate’s squad will be the second-youngest at Euro 2020; 11 of his players have won fewer than 10 caps and Grealish , who has seven, is confident that freshness can work to England’s advantage. “I think it could definitely help. I think we still have the experience in the side, then you have a blend of all the youngsters coming through. I read that [the squad] was one of the youngest in the tournament and I think that can help.”
Grealish’s maturity into a galvanising captain for Villa has been well documented and he attributes much of it to his experiences with England. “You come here and see the likes of Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane and what they do off the field,” he said. “You sit there and you think: ‘No wonder they have had the career they have had.’ That is one of the main things that has made me mature as a player and as a captain.”