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golden chance Time for Marcus Rashford to prove he is as big a deal on the field as he is off it

Players older and wiser after World Cup defeat

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The image has been painted on the side of Gainsborough Primary School in West Ham (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The image has been painted on the side of Gainsborough Primary School in West Ham (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The image has been painted on the side of Gainsborough Primary School in West Ham (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Marcus Rashford insists that winning the European Championships will all be in the mind for England.

Gareth Southgate's men begin their campaign a week today against Croatia - the country they lost to in the World Cup semi-finals three years ago.

And the Manchester United star believes the emotional lessons learned from that 2-1 defeat will hold them in good stead this time around.

Rashford, who replaced Raheem Sterling in the 74th minute of the clash that was decided by Mario Mandzukic's extra-time strike, says England no longer have a fear of the unknown.

He declares: "The talent and ability in the team is as high as I have seen it. A lot of what is going to come now is down to self-belief.

"I was speaking to some of the players and I think the only thing that stopped us last time was entering that element of the unknown.

"We hadn't been that far as a team before and we didn't know what to expect.

"I feel like we've learnt from those experiences, plus we've got a few new talented faces in the squad.

"We're looking at a really good balance - and you need balance to win trophies. We're definitely more prepared now. If we go into a semi-final again, we will control it much better - 100 per cent.

"We'll try and play our football. Last time it just turned into "attack, attack, attack" and we stopped doing the basics. I feel like we've learned from it. We're a lot more capable of doing greater things now."

Yet, for all Rashford's positive thinking, England go into their second and final warm- up against Romania today with negatives slowly but surely beginning to stack up.

Come next Sunday, they will be without Harry Maguire, the mainstay of Southgate's defence.

He missed the last five games of United's season, including the Europa League final defeat and the ankle injury that is taking so long to mend means Southgate will now almost certainly resort to a back three, as opposed to pairing Maguire with John Stones between Kyle Walker and Ben Chilwell.

Just when the die had been cast on those defensive plans, there is now bound to be uncertainty and a near-total change in formation.

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There will also be a question mark, now, over Stones.

The Manchester City star enjoyed a brilliant season as he and Pep Guardiola's team won a third Premier League title in four years and reached the Champions League final.

Only a year ago, his form had become so bad it looked like he was on the way out of the Etihad.

Hid renaissance coincided with the arrival of the majestic Reuben Dias, who is not only a great central defender but a calm character with fine organisational talents.

Maguire, even at £85million, may not be quite as good as Dias, but he is also a very calming influence - the kind that Stones has responded so well to.

Now Stones, at least for the Croatia match, will be the main man but without a rock like Maguire or, indeed, Dias.

It will be of huge concern to Southgate that he does not resort to type without those influences and turn into a nervous wreck again.

Just in front of Maguire that day in July 2018 against Croatia was Jordan Henderson.

Not only will be not face Croatia, the likelihood is that the Liverpool captain will play no part in the finals. In fact, the decision to even include him in the squad without playing a game since his groin surgery in February now looks badly misguided.

While Henderson has a fantastic personality, the fact that he is struggling desperately to be involved at any stage has to be a downer for his team-mates.

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Marcus Rashford of England celebrates with team mate Jordan Henderson after scoring their side's first goal against Romania on June 06, 2021 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by Lee Smith - Pool/Getty Images)

Marcus Rashford of England celebrates with team mate Jordan Henderson after scoring their side's first goal against Romania on June 06, 2021 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by Lee Smith - Pool/Getty Images)

Marcus Rashford of England celebrates with team mate Jordan Henderson after scoring their side's first goal against Romania on June 06, 2021 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by Lee Smith - Pool/Getty Images)

His club mate Trent Alexander-Arnold last week was sent back to Anfield after damaging his thigh in the 1-0 win over Austria.

Rashford, himself, admits he had been fighting injury issues all of last season and, while he was fit enough to join Southgate's squad, he is carrying ankle and shoulders problems.

Perhaps most worrying of all for Southgate is the Harry Kane situation.

England's captain has told Tottenham that he wants to ditch the club armband and move on.

His transfer will be the central one of the summer - if Spurs head honcho Daniel Levy allows it to happen - and nobody plays hard ball in the market more than him.

They don't come mentally tougher than Kane, who has made himself a superstar by coming up the hard way - starting off on loan in the fourth tier of English football.

Yet, having made it clear to Levy that he wants away - and with Manchester City and United gearing up to battle it out for him - the situation is bound to be on Kane's mind.

The 27-year-old thought long and hard about deciding to leave the club he has given his career to, but Levy is not about to simply stand aside and let him walk out of the door.

Things could yet turn ugly once battle lines are drawn.

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Marcus Rashford (Jon Super/PA)

Marcus Rashford (Jon Super/PA)

Marcus Rashford (Jon Super/PA)

Kane would not be human if he were not thinking about what the summer holds for him - meaning he might now be as focused on the job for England as he otherwise might have been.

Of course, Southgate (inset) can point to so much brilliant young talent at his disposal - such as Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount.

There is also the emerging international talent of Jack Grealish, at 25, a late bloomer in a white shirt.

And England's campaign, should they get beyond the semis, will mainly be conducted at Wembley.

They never had it so good - or not since 1966, that is. At least that's how it looks from the outside.

But, on the inside, in the minds of Southgate and his players, things may not look quite as rosy as they might appear.

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