England reached the finals of the inaugural Uefa Nations League after two second-half goals from Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane gave them a thrilling come-from-behind 2-1 win over Croatia at a sold-out Wembley Stadium.
Victory, which went some way to avenging their World Cup semi-final defeat, was no more than Gareth Southgate’s side deserved, such was their dominant display, particularly in the first half when they created several chances.
While 0-0 was good enough to keep them in the top tier of this tournament, they needed to win to top the group and reach the finals next year in Portugal.
AS IT HAPPENED: England v Croatia – Uefa Nations League
Defeat would have sent England to the second tier, but Croatia almost completed a classic smash and grab to relegate England. As it was, England’s captain came to the rescue with his 20th England goal, five minutes from time, to send the World Cup finalists spinning into the second tier of a tournament that has been nothing short of a huge success.
Croatia goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic beats England’s Raheem Sterling to the ball
Andrej Kramaric’s deflected 57th minute goal, completely against the run of play, was harsh on Gareth Southgate’s side who dominated throughout.
They looked in complete control, just as they did in their World Cup semi-final, until they suffered a devastating sucker-punch when Karamric turned inside the England box and fired in a shot that hit Eric Dier’s knee and looped over a flailing Jordan Pickford.
Jesse Lingard’s leveller 12 minutes from time set up a rousing last few minutes when he slid in to tap home after Kane had sent Jo Gomez’s long throw back from the far post.
Croatia looked as though they would somehow cling on to remain in the top tier, yet with five minutes left, when Kane slid in to send the ball in off the post from Ben Chilwell’s near-post free-kick, Wembley erupted.
England’s failure to put away several chances almost cost them, however.
Croatia were made to look very ordinary for long periods by England’s inventiveness and pace, and lived more than a little dangerously. The first goal was always going to be important and the visitors took the wind out of the hosts’ sails once getting their noses in front.
Football is a cruel game sometimes and defeat would have been a bitter body blow to the Three Lions, who needed to alter the fine margins needed to become one of the world’s elite. Yet they may have finally achieved that goal, thanks to this vibrant team Southgate has put together.
The performances from this young team are to be applauded. They were on the front foot constantly in the first period despite the lack of a cutting edge.
The only real moment of danger came in the first few minutes when Fabian Delph under-hit a back-pass, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford came out to close down Andrej Kramaric, and the ball broke to Ante Rebic, who blazed over from 25 yards.
Yet England had all the pressure in the opening period and should have gone in front after 11 minutes, but spurned two good chances in quick succession.
Kane, who was awarded the Man of the Match accolade, brilliantly played the ball through the inside right channel, setting Sterling away. His pace sent him clear and he was one-on-one with goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic but shot straight at him and the ball was turned behind. From the resulting corner, John Stones headed towards the back post and Kane, who had pulled away and was unmarked, was slightly off balance and did not manage to keep the ball down.
England’s pace, with Rashford and Sterling, caused all sorts of problems and Kalinic had to be at his best to deny Sterling and Kane, after Fabian Delph beat two men and sent Sterling free. Moments later, Rashford was far too quick for Lovren but his cross was cut out by Modric.
Croatia may have been under pressure, but they were still dangerous on the break and Kramaric served a warning, firing a right-footed shot from outside the box which went just wide of the left-hand post.
While Southgate’s side is all about quick interchange and plenty of movement, route-one almost broke the deadlock, with Pickford’s superb kick out finding Rashford in stride, and only a last-ditch tackle from Sime Vrsaljko prevented the Manchester United striker from getting through.
Chilwell then brought another good save from Kalinic, with a fierce left-footed shot from outside the box as England continued to probe.
Barkley and Delph, whose cultured left-foot gave the home side much better balance, were imperious in the first half. They used the ball simply when necessary, but always looked to play forward, and the Chelsea man was unlucky when driving a shot into the side netting just before the break after Kane had got contact on another good cross from Delph.
Barkley’s only blot was a yellow card for a poor tackle on Modric.
Croatia looked even more disjointed as the first half wore on, with England’s off-the-ball running making their defence uncomfortable and more reluctant to bring the ball out, knowing any gaps in behind would be exploited by hosts’ pace.
Yet for all their dominance, they went in at the break scoreless.
Rashford’s directness caused plenty of problems, casting fear in the Croatia defence every time he got on the ball, and he set the tone early in the second period when ghosting past two defenders as if they were not there, only to be crowded out.
Croatia simply could not cope with the fleet-footed striker and he went tearing down the flank again soon after, before squaring for Sterling, but his shot was again saved well by Kalinic, low down to his right.
Yet Croatia suddenly turned the tide with Kramaric’s fluke deflection and should have settled things when Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisic missed good chances. Lingard was also forced to clear off the line which ultimately proved a pivotal moment as there would have been no way back from 2-0 down.
Yet England proved that they had learned from their recent big-game experience and clawed their way back into it, before finally getting the result their performance deserved.
They now face the semi-final knockout phase in Portugal next June, which will be used as a stepping stone, and more valuable experience, as we head to the European Championships in 2020.