A late rally through Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane saw England defeat Croatia 2-1 to roar into the inaugural Nations League’s finals.
Forward Andrej Kramaric’s deflected second-half effort left them staring down the barrel of relegation. But substitute Lingard would both score on the line and clear off his own, prior to captain Kane ending a seven-game international goal drought to ensure England topped Group A4 ahead of Spain.
Here are the talking points:
TESTS OF CHARACTER
When World Cup 2018 semi-finalists meet, ability is not in question. At Wembley, character, instead, came to the fore.
Depleted Croatia – who needed victory to both avoid relegation and gain a finals berth – hung on the ropes in a high-octane first half during which their hosts dominated possession (61-39 per cent) and attempts on target (10-4), plus spurned glorious chances through Raheem Sterling and Kane (two).
Teams of greater ability, but more brittle mentality, would have folded. Instead, dancing Kramaric dropped John Stones to the floor and profited from Eric Dier’s deflection as Croatia struck on the counter-attack with their first chance of note on 57 minutes.
In this moment, they went from relegation certainties to in charge of Group A4. England’s hopes – in both the Nations League and Euro 2020 – moved in the opposite direction.
A 2018 defined by unexpectedly rapid progress risked ending on a deflating whimper.
Replacement Lingard’s scruffy 78th-minute tap-in – plus his clearance of Domagoj Vida’s header – and Kane’s stretched right leg on 85 minutes which met left-back Ben Chilwell’s bobbling free-kick provided the perfect late retort at a raucous Wembley.
This mixture of belief and raw ability is head coach Gareth Southgate’s great gift. Bring on Portugal next year.
NATIONS LEAGUE IS A WINNER
When did Wembley last experience an atmosphere like this?
After a decade of easy progressions to major tournaments, you probably have to go back to the tumultuous night of the ‘Wally with a Brolly’ when Croatia broke English hearts and denied them a berth at Euro 2008.
‘The Home of Football’ had, instead, grown used to hosting sedate affairs like Thursday’s international send-off for Wayne Rooney. This is where ample justification for the Nations League’s concept comes.
A competitive, undulating clash elicited a grandstand finish few will forget – and from which formative lessons were learned.
TEAMS ON THE MOVE
The Nations League’s very competitiveness guarantees insight into its competitors’ true standing.
Croatia prevailed over England in Russia. Circumstances since July 11 point to a change in direction.
England have successfully evolved from a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-3-3, adding youth stars such as electric Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho to the mix. Heading off Spain and Croatia deserves huge credit.
Croatia have lost goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, striker Mario Mandzukic and defender Vedran Corluka to retirement. Bayer Leverkusen centre-back Tin Jedvaj and CSKA Moscow loanee Nikola Vlasic aren’t, yet, at the same level.
Relegation cannot be a surprise.
Know more about Sport360 Application