This was a very frustrating night for those who invest in England.
They could have swept Croatia aside. Not by the six goal margin Spain achieved last month, but certainly with an echo of the 4-1 winning scoreline that was a high water mark of the Fabio Capello era, back in 2008.
Eric Dier hit a post, Harry Kane hit the bar, and in the space of two minutes in the second-half, Marcus Rashford wasted two excellent opportunities, that should have put the World Cup finalists away in their own, eerily empty, stadium by the sea.
CROATIA (4-3-3) : Livakovic 6, Jedvaj 6, Lovren 6, Vida 7, Pivaric 7, Kovacic 6.5 (Badelj 73, 6), Rakitic 7, Kramaric 6.5, Modric 7, Perisic 6.5 (Pjaca 68, 6), Rebic 6 (Livaja 80).
Subs not used: Sluga, Bartolec, Milic, Mitrovice, Rog, Bradaric, Pasalic, Santini.
Bookings: Kovacic, Lovren, Jedvaj
Manager: Zlatko Dalic 6
ENGLAND (4-3-3): Pickford 7, Walker 7, Stones 6.5, Maguire 6.5, Chilwell 7, Barkley 6, Henderson 7.5, Dier 7, Kane 6.5, Sterling 6.5 (Sancho 77), Rashford 5.5.
Subs not used: Butland, Bettinelli, Trippier, Alexander-Arnold, Dunk, Gomez, Winks, Chalobah, Mount, Maddison.
Bookings: Henderson, Stones, Sterling
Manager: Gareth Southgate 6.5
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany).
Having been outplayed by the same opponents in Russia in the summer, this was definitely an improvement. Yet the positives of the night – Ben Chilwell’s impressive full debut, and a first sight of Jadon Sancho, who became the youngest England debutant in a competitive game since Duncan Edwards – came with a feeling of disappointment, of what might have been.
It is going to be almost impossible to top this UEFA Nations League group ahead of Spain, but a win here would have made it very unlikely England could be relegated.
Now, they have work to do against Croatia at Wembley still, when victory here is what they deserved.
It was a bizarre atmosphere, obviously, shorn of fans, but it would be doing Gareth Southgate’s players a disservice to advance that as mitigation for Croatia’s shortcomings.
England changed their system and, for the most part, did well – but a night of frustration in front of goal will have been compounded by bookings for Jordan Henderson and John Stones that will keep both players out of Monday’s match against Spain in Seville. England will need all the defensive smarts they can muster for that encounter – and better finishing, too.
Indeed, it is essential they find a more clinical approach if they are to make progress before the 2020 European Championships. They cannot afford to let a team as good as Croatia off the hook. And while the efforts that hit the woodwork were tough –Rashford’s pair were crying out to be converted.
The first, in the 55th minute, came from an excellent cross by Kyle Walker, perfectly picking out the Manchester United man. It needed a firm, confident, finish, instead Rashford was weak, his connection was scuffed and poor, and Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic mopped it up comfortably.
The second, if anything, was worse. Rashford was through one on one, only Livakovic to beat, but the young man telegraphed his intentions and the goalkeeper plucked the ball from its path.