Inspired England win through after thrilling fightback against World Cup nemesis
England 2 Croatia 1
It was never going to quite make up for a World Cup semi-final defeat, but boy did it feel good.
That agonising 2-1 loss to Croatia in Moscow was a reminder that beating the very best nations has remained an elusive ambition for too long. Now at last, the ambition has traction.
It needed two goals in the last 12 minutes from a never-say-die England to turn things around after they had fallen behind early in the second half - just when it had begun to look like mission impossible.
Gareth Southgate’s young side are nothing if not tireless and determined and after sub Jesse Lingard had poked in an equaliser, the belief was reignited that they might somehow prevail.
And prevail they did when, five minutes from time, Harry Kane stretched out a leg to divert a Ben Chilwell free-kick in off the far post.
Now, incredibly, England have topped a group containing Spain and their bete noir - World Cup finalists Croatia - to reach next summer’s semi-finals in the fledgling Nations League.
Suddenly, next June will no longer be free of international intrigue - no longer a gap year between tournaments. There will be a great deal to play for.
England had been very much on top after the break, when Croatia stole ahead against the run of play.
A counter-attack found Andrej Kramaric in space on the penalty spot and with neither John Stones nor Eric Dier able to get close enough to block, the former Leicester City striker twisted one way, then the other before clipping a deflected shot off Dier beyond Jordan Pickford.
But within minutes of a double-substitution by Southgate, Lingard, brought on along with Jadon Sancho to shake things up, toe-poked in an equaliser on 78 minutes after Kane had touched the ball past the keeper following a long throw from Joe Gomez.
It set up a grandstand finish, with Southgate’s men rising to the occasion.
This was no re-run of events in Moscow, with England much more on the front foot this time and Luka Modric unable to dictate in the manner of that famous defeat. The absence of Ivan Rakitic was significant for the Croatians.
The pace of Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford on the break was immediately a source of concern for the visitors – and that is the one element that can unsettle the very best.
One Sterling charge ended with a poor final pass that nevertheless induced a panicked clearance, another dart at goal by the Man City winger forced Lovre Kalinic into a near-post save.
From the resulting corner, Kane made a hash of a chance at the far post after Stones had won the nod down – but the signs were at least promising.
Moments later, Kane had two goalbound efforts blocked – by a defender’s head and by Kalinic – after the keeper had tried to head clear from outside the box, only to offer up a shot at goal for the World Cup’s top goalscorer last summer
England had an early scare similar to that one for Croatia, when Jordan Pickford raced from goal to clear, only to give Kramaric a sight of goal. A punt over the bar brought sighs of relief for home fans.
Before the first half was out, Ross Barkley crashed a shot into the side-netting after the ball had dropped down into space following an aerial duel that Kane won in the six-yard box.
Rashford’s willingness to take defenders on almost created a perfect opening for Sterling early in the second half – the final effort being a stretched stab at goal which Kalinic saved comfortably.
Just as England were building a head of steam, Croatia grabbed the lead to invoke a sinking feeling, which England managed to shake off quickly and overcome. This was a major triumph against quality opposition. There can be no disputing that now.
Line-up: Pickford – Walker, Gomez, Stones, Chilwell – Rashford (Sancho 73), Dier, Delph (Lingard 73), Sterling – Barkley (Dele Alli 64) – Kane. Subs not used: Butland, McCarthy, Alexander-Arnold, Dunk, Keane, Shaw, Winks, Loftus-Cheek, Wilson.