LONDON: Late goals from Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane goals propelled into the semi-finals of the UEFA Nations League with a 2:1 win over Croatia who had earlier threatened to condemned the Three Lions to relegation.
Victory meant England topped Group A4 while Croatia, World Cup runners-up in Mocow only four months ago, were relegated instead. Spain, who could have topped the group with a different result, merely remain in the top tier.
England have a mixed history against Croatia. In 2007 they led 2-0 before losing 3-2 to Croatia at Wembley and thus missed out on qualifying for the finals of the European Championship the following year. Defeat marked the end of Steve McClaren’s short, unhappy reign as manager. Last July Croatia recovered from 1:0 down in Moscow to beat England 2-1 after extra-time in the semi-finals of the World Cup.
England manager Gareth Southgate believes England are a better side than they were in Moscow and pointed to the goalless draw in Croatia earlier this autumn. He said: “We’ve learned with every experience that we’ve had. We’ve added more depth to the squad in terms of some more young players emerging, more competition for places.”
England had all 25 players available for a match which saw half the team changed from last Thursday’s 3-0 friendly win against the United States, when record goalscorer Wayne Rooney bid farewell to the national team with a 120th and final cap. The only significant injury absentees were defenders Kieran Trippier and Harry Maguire. Croatia were without Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic.
England used three at the back with success at the World Cup but Southgate has changed his approach, partly because of the emergence of new players such as the Leicester leftback Ben Chilwell and the improvement of Ross Barkley under Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea.
England were largely in control of the first half. However they were unable to create enough opportunities to threaten a Croatia side who had proved, during the World Cup, that they become ever more dangerous as a match continues.
Croatia, with captain Luka Modric inceasingly influential, proved their point nine minutes into the second half when Andrej Kramaric changed direction to surprise the three defenders around him and scored with a shot which deflected off Eric Dier’s outstretched leg and over goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
The 78 221 fans must have thought this was 2007 all over again when a Kyle Walker shot was saved easily by Lovre Kalinic. Southgate had no option but to make changes of game plan and personnel. Tottenham’s Delle Alli replaced Barkley, Jesse Lingard substituted defensive midfielder Fabian Delph and Jadon Sancho came on for Marcus Rashford – to immediate effect.
Kane jabbed a long throw from Liverpool’s Joe Gomez across the face of goal and Lingard equalised. That was in the 78th minute. Six minutes more and Kane struck the winner from a Chilwell free kick. Cue the Wembley chorus of: “It’s coming home . . .”