Gareth Southgate was frustrated by the result but not his side’s performance as England ignored the eerie backdrop to draw with Croatia in the Nations League.
Three months after meeting in the World Cup semi-finals, the sides lined up at the virtually-empty Stadion HNK Rijeka as the hosts completed a UEFA stadium ban for having a swastika on the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.
A few hundred officials and journalists were all that were in attendance for the Group A4 encounter, but there was a small group of England fans perched on a hill overlooking the stadium – and their efforts were nearly rewarded with a win.
Eric Dier and Harry Kane hit the woodwork either side of half-time in Rijeka, where Ross Barkley saw a penalty appeal rejected and Marcus Rashford wasted two great chances as the match ended 0-0.
“It feels like a game we should have won,” England manager Southgate said. “I think the performance deserved that.
“First half, pretty even but a very good chance from the corner, which we probably should have got on the end of. They had one from a cut-back.
“They had one reasonable chance in the second half, but I thought, really, we dictated the flow of the game for a long period and the second-half performance was excellent.
“We were pushing and pushing right to the end, so I couldn’t ask more of the players.
“I am pleased with the chances we created, and we just have to make sure we finish them which on another day we will.”
The Three Lions did well to keep their focus on a peculiar night in Rijeka.
History was made as 18-year-old Jadon Sancho came off the bench to become the first player born this millennium to represent England, while full debutant Ben Chilwell and returning Barkley impressed Southgate.
“They’re hugely proud to play in the shirt,” the England manager said.
“We talked just before the game… it’s not an easy pitch either, especially in that final third. A lot of people just slipping with their footing.
“So, that quality in the final third, at times the ball bouncing up at the wrong moment, but good teams adapt and good teams, whatever the circumstances or the atmosphere or the pitch, find a way of playing.
“I was really pleased that the players did that tonight.
“I was particularly pleased with Ben Chilwell. I thought that was a super debut, very composed with his defending against some top-quality players.
“He was patient, he made good interceptions, his use of the ball was very composed, got forward well.
“I also thought Ross Barkley coming back into the team had a very good impact on the game as well.
“We’re disappointed to leave here not having won, but I have to focus on the way that we play and tonight I thought we played well.”
In a repeat of the summer’s World Cup semi-final clash, England were only able to come away with a goalless stalemate against Croatia.
The Nations League match ended in a 0-0 draw draw at the empty stadium in Rijeka on Friday night with Marcus Rashford’s two misses proving costly.
The Manchester United striker wasted golden chances to take the lead while Eric Dier and Harry Kane also hit the woodwork from set-pieces.
The result bodes well for group leaders Spain, who beat both last month, to progress to the first ever Nations League semi-finals next summer.
Here is our report card from the clash.
With Croatia completing the second of a two-game UEFA sanction to play behind closed doors, the stadium in Rijeka was deserted and in hindsight, it was probably for the best.
Both sides were solid and set up not to make mistakes rather than take the advantage. With the pitch producing plenty of unpredictable bounces as well, the match was not a great spectacle.
England will take encouragement from the fact that they were compact and hardly put a foot wrong at the back but their build-up play left a lot to be desired. They pushed further up the pitch in the second-half and generated chances by pressing their opponents and committing more numbers forward but couldn’t apply the finishing touch.
Meanwhile, Croatia had their moments on the ball but appeared content to bide their time and wait for the opportunity to stride forward rather than forcing the visitors onto the back foot.
Set-pieces – England’s prowess from set-pieces was well documented throughout their surprising run to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia and still holds them in good stead. Gareth Southgate has mastered the art of taking full advantage of quality delivery and aerial ability. His side are well drilled in their routines and it showed again. Eric Dier struck the upright in the first half from Jordan Henderson’s corner before Harry Kane’s header from the Liverpool skipper’s free-kick in the second crashed off the crossbar.
Teamwork – Croatia went on their own fairytale run at the World Cup – all the way to the final – and have teamwork to thank. Against England, they hunted in packs, closing down the man on the ball. The chemistry within the side came to the fore when Ante Rebic instinctively stepped over Josip Pivaric’s cross for Andrej Kramaric to strike or when Ivan Perisic tracked Kyle Walker all the way to the byline to cover for Pivaric who had tucked in.
Disjointed approach – At some point, Southgate has got to get England playing better in possession. That they lack creativity in the middle of the park is no secret but with neither Dele Alli nor Jesse Lingard in action on Friday night, they were completely devoid of it. The Three Lions instead relied on set-pieces, counter-attacks and turnovers for their opportunities. The ability to fashion chances through intelligent build-up play is one they continue to lack.
Playing it safe – Given their inferior goal difference in League A Group 4, Croatia needed a win from this encounter more than England but didn’t show it. They were far too cautious when they should’ve tested England’s defence more which had shifted from their usual back three to a back four. Every time Croatia went forward with purpose, their passing and movement was superior to their opponent’s but didn’t commit to going on the offensive often enough.
TACTICAL TURNING POINT
Formation switches – More of an observation than a turning point but England’s switching between formations had little effect. They set up in a 4-3-3 system and defended in that shape. However, in possession, they did switch to a back three at times early in the first-half with Eric Dier dropping in between the two centre-backs and the full-backs pushing forward. That said, it did not aid England’s build-up play and Southgate seemed to abandon the tactic fairly quickly.
A largely solid display but failed to create enough clear-cut chances. Dalic’s side were rather timid during the encounter and didn’t deserve anything more than a draw.
Hardly easy on the eye but they had enough chances to win this game. Apart from striking the woodwork twice from set-pieces, Rashford was also guilty of squandering a couple of glorious opportunities.
Hazard has since gone on to quickly put himself on the level of the rest of the world’s elite. after spending most of the last four seasons knocking on the door.
Here’s how the Belgium captain and his fellow stars have fared since the summer.
Hazard was named the second-best player at the World Cup, and since starring in Russia, he’s gotten even better. New Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri has unlocked Hazard’s best by allowing the playmaker to play with more freedom.
The result has been that the 28-year-old has shot up to the top of the Premier League scoring charts, and begun looking like one of the best players in the world.
Lukaku seemed to have emerged from the World Cup a more rounded, mature player, ready to take on greater responsibility. Instead, he’s been in an inexplicable slump for Manchester United, where he’s currently in a six-game goal drought.
His profligacy in front of goal has been a big factor behind United’s middling start to the season, as he’s passed up chances that could have resulted in a different result. Still, seven goals from 13 games is hardly a bad record for an out-of-form striker.
Clean Sheets: 4
It’s been a tumultuous time for Courtois after his World Cup heroics. Entering the final season of his contract at Chelsea, he failed to report to training, trying to force through a move to Real Madrid.
He got his wish, though he’s had to split time with Keylor Navas at the Santiago Bernabeu and he’s been part of Madrid’s recent slump. On the plus side, he was named the year’s best goalkeeper by FIFA, and nominated for the Ballon d’Or.