Sunday Express


- From Steve Bates in Bucharest

SECOND PLACE could be just the ticket for England next summer – to smooth their passage towembley glory. The Three Lions were handed a friendly draw, with Group D games against Croatia and the Czech Republic and one of four play-off hopefuls – Scotland,

Israel, Serbia and Norway.

But if Gareth

Southgate’s stars top their section they face a round of 16 clash with world champions

France, reigning Euro kings Portugal or tournament specialist­s

Germany in Dublin.

Finishing second, though, gives England an easier route and they would face the runners-up of Group E, which includes Spain, Sweden and Poland.

Southgate isn’t a fan of tactical plotting to engineer a cushier route – and he insisted last night his players want to storm through their group to build vital momentum.

“I think everyone went through that in Russia,” he said. “It was a bit like do we want to be top seeds for this draw. In the end, we want to win every game we play and have control of our destiny, then fortune will take you wherever it takes you.

“You need a strategy of getting out of the group – there are three games, not one.

“The two teams we know in Croatia and the Czechs, we have had good results and poor results against them.

“It’s nothing to be complacent about but everyone not drawn in Group F (the ‘Group of Death’) will be pleased about that!

“But Croatia atwembley is a brilliant opening game for the fans and the players.”

Southgate was a player in 1996 when England hosted the tournament and were beaten in a semi-final penalty shoot-out by Germany.

And he wants to tap into the wild support England fans whipped up 24 years ago.

“We can’t ask our fans not to get excited or enjoy themselves. This is a summer to be cherished and enjoyed.

“We are at

Wembley. We want to make Wembley somewhere teams fear coming.we do that by the levels of our performanc­e and the atmosphere.”

England have the chance ofworld Cup revenge over

Croatia whose fans taunted Southgate and his stars by singing ‘It’s coming home’ in


But boss Zlatko

Dalic reckons it could be England’s year.

“England now is a fantastic team,” he said.

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