Gareth Southgate asked the Molineux crowd not to boo West Bromwich’s Saido Berahino last night, but the striker gave them every reason to cheer as he popped up with a late penalty to hand England a slender lead heading into Tuesday’s second leg of this European Championship play-off.
The marksman from Wolves’ local rivals also provided the cross for Harry Kane’s equaliser as England came from behind to keep their unbeaten record under Southgate.
However, Tuesday’s return will be just as difficult, a task made harder if defender Michael Keane and midfielder Will Hughes do not recover from injury.
But having won nine of their 10 group matches and conceded only two goals to reach the play-off round, England’s victory last night was just reward for a positive performance against a Croatia side set up to defend.
Berahino had won the winning penalty himself after being brought down by goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic with five minutes left. He put it away decisively on a ground where the home crowd would normally be willing him to fail, his ninth goal at Under-21 level, putting him four behind the record of 13 held by Alan Shearer and Francis Jeffers.
Having also set up Kane for his equaliser, Berahino’s ability to make an impact in decisive moments will have been noted by Roy Hodgson, who was in a crowd of more then 23,000. Southgate will also have been encouraged by the character of the England side.
“We have been used to being in front so this was a different test,” said the manager. “When you want something in life it often isn’t straightforward to get it, so where character was important so was calmness and patience.
“It was a really good game against a good side who are physically strong and well organised, so I was delighted with the character we showed.”
Croatia went ahead after 13 minutes when Filip Bradaric’s corner on the left was flicked on by centre-back Niko Datkovic and found its way to the far post where Marko Livaja, who plays for Russian side Rubin Kazan, nodded home unmarked.
England had not conceded first since Finland took the lead in Tampere in September last year in the only match in which Southgate’s side dropped points.
England’s response was positive and Luke Shaw was unlucky not to level when he hit the post. Nathan Redmond then forced goalkeeper Livakovic into a fingertip save.
Creating more clear-cut chances near goal was a challenge for the home side, though, with Croatia happy to sit deep and invite pressure. But Southgate’s players maintained their patience and discipline and were rewarded on 57 minutes when Kane moved into space nicely as Berahino, on the left, chipped a cross to the near post and the Tottenham forward directed a deft header past Livakovic, his seventh goal in 12 games for club and country this season.
The away goal meant the advantage remained with Croatia but Livakovic offered England a great opportunity to finish the first leg in front when he slid in recklessly on Berahino, put in by Kane.Reuse content