Football may not yet be coming home, but it is at least going to Portugal, in June, for the finals of the UEFA Nations League.
A comeback that shows how much this team has grown under Gareth Southgate sent England to the top of an elite group – and savour that sentence for a moment – reducing Spain to also-rans and relegating World Cup finalists Croatia to the ranks of the League B wannabes.
That the win was entirely deserved is pleasing; that England fought back from a losing position doubly so. Yes, it would be nice to be comfortable. Yet the manner of this victory says much about the squad and its improvement.
Young players, emboldened, going places, unafraid. Previous England teams would have shrunk when Croatia scored against the run of play. Their fear, the absence of self-esteem would have been exposed.
Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard scored late on as England came from behind to beat Croatia in the crunch Nations League clash.
England (4-3-3): Pickford; Walker; Gomez; Stones; Chilwell; Barkley (Alli 62); Dier; Delph (Sancho 72); Sterling; Kane; Rashford (Lingard 72)
Scorers: Lingard 78, Kane 84
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Kalinic; Vrsaljko (Milic 26); Lovren; Vida; Jedvaj; Modric; Brozovic; Kramaric; Vlasic (Rog 78); Perisic; Rebic (Brekalo 45)
Scorers: Kramaric 56
Booked: Jedvaj, Brozovic, Lovren.
Instead, Southgate made changes, young men off, younger men on mostly, and the tempo upped. Croatia – so cocky in recent weeks while feigning modesty – could not handle it. They fell to two set piece moves in the space of seven minutes – the first a long throw, the second a free-kick whipped in from the left. Not that England were unsophisticated. They had cut Croatia open with pace and guile in the first-half; they just didn’t take those chances.
This is the second time in roughly four months that England have faced Croatia in a must-win match, and for a time it looked as if the outcomes would mirror. The first game was bigger, being a World Cup semi-final, but the sense of disappointment would have been greater on Sunday. This was a home game, after all, coming on the back of two very promising away results that were interpreted as the turning of a corner.
Instead, the road looked to be yielding another dead end. Not that England played poorly; they did not. Yet, as in Rijeka last month, England did not take some very good chances. No teams wins the biggest prizes without being clinical in front of goal and England could have been two up, at least, before half-time. Yet while the scores stayed level England were vulnerable. Croatia could go through with a win, Spain with a scoring draw.
Either outcome saw England relegated, meaning any Croatian goal and England needed two. In the 57th minute, very much against the run of play, the worst happened. The ball was cut back to Andrej Kramaric and he had – what, six, seven seconds of twisting this way and that in the penalty area without John Stones or any England defender able to close him down. His shot seemed to clip Eric Dier and take it clear of Jordan Pickford. England now needed two. In that moment, all looked lost.
is pace that frightens Croatia, particularly in the heart of their defence, and that is one quality England’s front line have in abundance, certainly from wider areas through Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. There were just 11 minutes gone when Kane tested this theory, dropping deeper into midfield and playing a lovely ball over the top that sent Sterling away one on one. Sadly, his finishing was not equal to the challenge and his shot was aimed at the advancing Kalinic.
From the resulting corner, played in by Ross Barkley, John Stones got a header on, which fell at the feet of Kane. He was just yards from goal, a guard on the line playing him onside, but he couldn’t get sufficient purchase on the ball and turned it over the bar.
A way through had been established though, and in the 16th minute, Delph returned to it, playing a quite magnificent ball to set Sterling clear again, this time Kalinic haring out to thwart him on the edge of the area. The ball ran loose and was returned goalwards with interest by Kane, full-back Tin Jedvaj recovering well to head his shot out. Back it went to Kane again, but this time his shot was tipped around by Kalinic, now back in position.
It was a superb period of pressure from England, but with nothing to show for it, bearing in mind a draw handed Spain the group. In the 25th minute, Chilwell tried a shot from 20 yards that forced another good save from Kalinic, while a 40th minute cross from the Leicester man was cleared only to be met by Barkley on the volley, the ball flying into the side-netting, convincing those on the far side of the ground a goal had been scored.
From Croatia, there really wasn’t much at all before half-time. In the 38th minute, Andrej Kramaric found a way through on the left and worked the ball to Ivan Perisic who shot over; but missing Ivan Rakitic the midfield looked shorn of much of its power.