England 2-1 Croatia
England displayed superb resilience as they came from behind to reach the Nations League semi-finals. Harry Kane scored England’s winner in a game won by Gareth Southgate’s substitutions.
Croatia’s last gasp win over Spain made this match a true winner-takes-all tie. Over 78,000 were in attendance as Wembley set itself for a chance of World Cup revenge against Croatia. The visitors made just one change from the side that saw off Spain – Ivan Rakitić returned to Barcelona with a niggling injury and was replaced by Nikola Vlašić, a CSKA Moscow midfielder on loan from Everton. Gareth Southgate, by contrast, made wholesale changes from Thursday’s victory over the United States. Only Jordan Pickford, Ben Chilwell and Fabian Delph retained their places for Southgate’s side. Eric Dier and Ross Barkley joined Delph in the centre of the park.
Just two minutes in, Croatia were handed the opening chance on a plate by a nervous England. Jordan Pickford initially dived in to gather a pass back, eventually realising he couldn’t use his hands. He chested the ball right into the path of Ante Rebić, who skied the ball, much to England’s relief.
The hosts piled on a great deal of pressure after this though, with Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane causing the Croatian backline problems. In the eleventh minute, Kane dropped deep to play Sterling in one-on-one. The Manchester City player was a little indecisive, firing into the midriff of goalkeeper Lovre Kalinić. John Stones knocked the ball down from the resulting corner, only for Kane, unmarked a few yards out, to scuff a volley over when he really ought to have done better. The Three Lions were asking questions, but they weren’t taking their chances.
England came close again only a few moments later. A brilliant pick out by Delph set Raheem Sterling on a race with the onrushing Kalinić. The keeper headed the ball away, but only into the path of Harry Kane. England’s captain was denied twice by blocks off the goal line, first by a defender and then by Kalinić, on a frantic retreat to his goal. After this point, proceedings became much more even. Pickford would have claimed an unlikely assist, if not for Marcus Rashford’s waste of a counter, before Ivan Perišić came close for Croatia. Ross Barkley’s volley came close for England, but Croatia then wasted good chances as Rebić twice fired over when passing would have been the more sensible option. At halftime, The Three Lions had come closest. But that didn’t matter one jot; the score was still 0-0 at Wembley.
Zlatko Dalić had withdrawn defender Šime Vrsaljko from the game after just 26 minutes, presumably through fatigue. Croatia’s second substitution came at halftime, with Ante Rebić replaced by Josip Brekalo. The second half started slowly, but with England doing all the attacking. If it stayed 0-0, England would finish second and Croatia would go down. Eventually a chance presented itself for Croatia, who nicked the ball away and began a counter-attack. Brekalo was able to slip Vlašić in, who pulled back for striker Andrej Kramarić, the former Leicester City forward. Kramarić twisted and turned as he toyed with England. When he finally got his shot away, the ball deflected unkindly off Eric Dier. It spun over Jordan Pickford and in. Croatia roared in celebration of the goal that might have won them the group.
The Croats had scored against the run of play, England had been unlucky. They knew they needed a response and, with fifty-seven minutes gone, there was limited time in which to find it. On came Dele for the carded Ross Barkley. After a few minutes, Fabian Delph and Marcus Rashford were, perhaps harshly, replaced too. Jesse Lingard and Jadon Sancho were introduced. England would be relegated even if they equalised. They needed to win.
On seventy-seven minutes, Joe Gomez, showing the benefit of working with Liverpool’s recently employed ‘throw-in coach’, launched the ball into a crowded area. Stones won the knock-down, and the ball ran into the path of striker Kane. The Spurs talisman scraped the ball between the legs of goalkeeper Lovre Kalinić. It may have been rolling in, but sub Jesse Lingard made sure it did, with the easiest tap-in he’ll ever score. England had twelve minutes of normal time with which to score that all-important second.
England nearly shot themselves in the foot just four minutes on, as Jesse Lingard was crucial at the other end to clear a Croatia corner off the line, keeping his team in the game. England broke out well and normal service resumed for the hosts, pushing for a winner. Some shrewd centre-forward play from Harry Kane earned England a freekick, a fair way out on the left wing. Leicester’s Ben Chilwell lined up to take it. His cross evaded Tin Jedvaj, the hero for Croatia on Thursday. This proved to be decisive as Croatia couldn’t clear the ball. It bounced to Kane, who saw it late, slid in, and poked the ball off the post and into the net. England celebrated an almost carbon-copy of his winner a year ago against Slovenia, celebrating in almost identical fashion too. That goal sent England to the World Cup; this one sends them to a second semi-final in a year.
Many have discussed Harry Kane’s goal drought since the World Cup, but of England’s last four goals with Kane on the pitch, he has scored one and assisted the other three. The Three Lions held on well and completed a fine turnaround. Croatia are relegated. Spain stay where they are. England make the finals. It’s been an unforgettable year for them and it ended with England beating Croatia 2-1 at Wembley.