Back in early September, some turned their noses up at Uefa’s newest invention. Three months on and England have another summer tournament to look forward to following success in their Uefa Nations League group in League A. Having played well in all four of their matches against alert and testing opponents in Spain and Croatia, they have deservedly progressed to next summer’s semi-finals in Portugal.
From the off, the idea of playing competitive football outside of the usual two-year tournament cycle appeared to suit England more so than most other nations. Of course, the minnows have substantially altered how they address matches when facing teams of equal ilk, but England above all others needed this new tournament. Having battled through a tough Sunday afternoon at Wembley against their new ‘grudge’ team, last summer’s optimism amongst supporters and players has only been re-affirmed and also improved.
And yet, it could have been quite different; for a period of the afternoon England were facing relegation – just one of the entire set of permutations that could have befell England. But in any group featuring three teams, especially with this being the toughest of the all the groups, it was always going to go down to the wire. And it certainly did.
Tense afternoon at Wembley
Only 15 minutes were left on the Wembley clock when England made up for a first half featuring a plethora of missed chances by finally scoring past Lovre Kalinic as Jesse Lingard tapped in following a long thrusting Joe Gomez throw in. With the score now level, Croatia having taken the lead just before the hour mark with persistent play, it was set up for a grandstand finish. Captain Harry Kane tends to thrive in moments such as that and once again he poached a goal to send Wembley into delirium.
Tight and tense would be an understatement, as even a Croatia equaliser late on would have sent England from first-place to last but it never came. Winning such matches only adds to the belief that England are growing and improving into a formidable international side. Gareth Southgate is leading a bunch of talented youngsters with humility and determination.
First choice XI picked by Southgate
The number of options that Southgate has available is also ever-improving; eight changes were made from the starting XI against the USA on Thursday and even then, there was still no room for Dele Alli, Jadon Sancho and Lingard in the XI. Fabian Delph and Ross Barkley were chosen to accompany Eric Dier in the midfield, with Jordan Henderson absent through injury.
Croatia, having had to endure an almighty tussle against Spain in Zagreb but still coming out as 3-2 victors to set up this finale, were forced to make a single change as Ivan Rakitic was ruled out through injury and replaced by Nikola Vlasic. And it was Vlasic’s pressing which forced England into an early error as the visitors could have taken the lead in the opening minutes.
Delph’s first involvement was an inauspicious one as he diverted the ball back to Jordan Pickford under pressure. The Everton goalkeeper slid out as Ivan Perisic closed him down with the ball rebounding off his chest straight to Ante Rebic who shot over from 20 yards with the goal unguarded. England were let off, but for the following 20 minutes it was roles reversed.
England set the pace in the first half
There was some unorthodox defending as Kane and Co laid siege on the Croatia goal. England set the pace, and it was rather testing of the wearisome legs of the Croats. Kane released Raheem Sterling, who was clear on goal, but his shot was parried by Kalinic, having snubbed a good opportunity to square across the Croatia area to Marcus Rashford.
A corner-kick ensued and John Stones flicked it on with Kane, having pulled away, hooking it over as he fell. The opportunities were beginning to wrack up, but clinical finishing was nowhere to be found. The pattern was set, and soon enough Sterling – his pace and directness unsettling Croatia – latched on to a lovely weighted through ball by Delph but Kalinic once again got the better of the Manchester City attacker. The goalkeeper, however, could only parry the effort and Kane was quickly on the scene to spurn two golden chances – one being cleared off the line by Tin Jedvaj and another saved by Kalinic.
Wasted chances could have been costly
Rashford tested the pace of Sime Vrsaljko, and although the Croat won the duel, he was forced off having over stretched to make the tackle. Barkley hit the side-netting and Ben Chilwell struck a bouncing shot but was saved by the Croatian keeper. Still more pace, aggression and chances, but no goals. How England were going in at the break without the lead was baffling, and could well have been costly.
With 12 minutes of second half action played, it appeared so. Substitute Josip Brekalo rolled the ball in to Vlasic in the England penalty area and he squared for Andre Kramaric, who twisted and turned, holding off Stones as he tried to block. Eventually he shot with the ball ricocheting off Dier’s leg to float over Pickford and into the net. Persistent play paid off for Kramaric as his eight touches inside the England area eventually led to a goal against the run of play.
England showed resolve in final stages
The wind could have easily been taken out of England’s sails, but such is the desire and resolve of Southgate’s men that they never gave up. Following England’s intricate and stimulating attacking play, their goals came from set-plays. With time running out Gomez launched a long throw which was headed on by Stones with Kane once again pulling away at the far post. The striker jabbed the ball through the legs of Kalinic for Lingard to tap home. Thomas Gronnemark’s set-piece work is clearly benefitting far beyond Melwood.
The game could have gone in either direction from there but England attempted to exploit weary Croat legs. Chilwell was felled on the left and took the free-kick himself. It was sent across the six-yard box and there was Kane sliding in, the poacher as ever. The comeback was sealed. Group A4 always looked enticing on paper and right until the end, it was enthralling and for England, ultimately, exultant.