Harry Kane completes stirring England comeback over Croatia to reach Nations League semi-finals

England 2-1 Croatia: Late goals from Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane turned the match on its head to relegate Croatia and see England through to final four

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Sunday 18 November 2018 16:45
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Anyone looking for proof that this England team is still getting better, that they are for real, need only watch the remarkable turnaround here against Croatia. England were minutes away from defeat and Nations League relegation and they turned it into one of their greatest modern wins, with late goals from Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane propelling them to a 2-1 win.

Not only does that stop England from being relegated, it sends them to the finals in Portugal in June, and another shot at a trophy for Gareth Southgate’s thrilling young team.

It was not a World Cup semi-final, but to see the delight of the England players and the end – and how emotional Croatia were too – was to see just how important this game was to everyone involved. It was also a vindication for the Nations League format itself, making this game far more competitively important than any normal friendly would be.

Producing these two late goals to turn the game was something that England could never do in the Luzhniki four months ago. Which says something of the improved mettle, and attacking options, that the team has now. For much of this afternoon it felt like a re-run of the World Cup, which is why the different ending was so important.

Just as they did at the Luzhniki, England tore into Croatia from the start. Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida like to defend dangerously high up the pitch and England’s obvious plan was to release Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford to run in behind them. Almost every time England got the ball they went for that early incisive pass, just as they did when they cut through Spain in Seville last month.

But that night England’s execution was perfect, and they stormed into a 3-0 half-time lead. Here it was not, and the first half turned into one long missed opportunity. After 10 minutes England should have gone ahead, when Kane turned and played in Sterling, racing away from Vida. He missed a few chances like this in the World Cup, but scored from this position in Spain. This was a return to the Sterling of the summer, though, as he shot straight at Lovre Kalinic.

Jesse Lingard scores England's equaliser

England kept the pressure up, and missed another chance to double their lead straight after. John Stones flicked on a Ross Barkley corner at the near post, and there was Kane, in space at the far post. It was impossible not to think back to Tunisia in Volgograd, when Kane nodded in from precisely this position to win England the game. But this time he could not get his connection quite right.

Still England pushed and another ball in behind for Sterling produced another good chance for Kane, with Kalinic scrambling to get back, but Tin Jedvaj got back to block on the line. England could have been 3-0 up but instead it was goalless and there was a very strong sense in the ground that England were missing their chance. Croatia always wanted to play a slow game and the longer this went on, the stronger their hand became. England had their moment to take early control of the game, and they wasted it.

Sure enough the second half was a different place. England were trying to force the game, and with Marcus Rashford tearing down the left wing they were dangerous, but never dangerous enough. Croatia were sitting deeper now and England did not have the same space to play with.

Harry Kane slides to score England's winner

Wembley already felt ominous at this point, as if everyone here knew in outline what was going to happen, and were just waiting to be filled in on the details. Croatia had barely attacked in the first half but it only takes one attack to score a goal. Breaking into space, Josip Brekalo found Ante Rebic, who pulled the ball back for Kramaric. Surrounded by white shirts, he waited, turned, waited and finally got off a shot that deflected off Eric Dier’s knee and into the far top corner of the goal.

One nil down, it was win or bust for England. Either they scored twice or got relegated. So Southgate threw on Jesse Lingard and Jadon Sancho, a remarkable show of faith in an 18-year-old who has only a few minutes of competitive international senior football to his name. But it woke up the crowd, and to experience the tension and atmosphere as England chased the game, with glory and disaster the only possible outcomes, was to feel the importance of this new format.

And it worked, with a thrilling thumping vindication for Southgate’s bravery. England’s two goals were scrappy but they would not have happened without those crucial changes.

Raheem Sterling gets on the ball for England

First Joe Gomez launched a long throw in from the right, a new tactical option that he brings to the game. Stones flicked it on at the near post and the ball bounced through to Kane at the far post. He got just enough of his foot on it as Kalinic came out, sending the ball trickling towards the line. Lingard was sharp enough to sweep the ball over the line.

Suddenly Wembley was alive, louder and more positive than it has been for any England game here for years. England had 13 minutes to score a second, save themselves from relegation and book their place in the finals in Portugal next June. They were putting more pressure on Croatia than they had managed since the first half.

And, with five minutes left, it finally paid off: Ben Chillwell curled in a free-kick from the left, and there was Kane, sneaking in between two defenders, stretching out one long leg, pushing the ball low into the bottom corner of the net beyond Kalinic. England had won, England were safe, England were through to the final.

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