Substitute Lingard clears off the line before drawing England level as Southgate's side fightback to overcome Croatia
Harry Kane fires England into Nations League semi-finals with late winner against Croatia
It is fitting that England’s breakthrough year ends on a high. If their 2018 is destined to be remembered for producing a first appearance in a World Cup semi-final since 1990, it concludes with England beating first Spain and now Croatia to top their Uefa Nations League pool. It means 2019 could yet deliver silverware.
If it seemed Gareth Southgate’s stock not rise any higher after Russia, perhaps that impression was wrong. “A real step forward,” Southgate said. “We have come out of an incredibly strong group.”
England could savour a reversal of their World Cup scoreline against Croatia, conceding first and recovering to prevail 2-1. There was something fitting, too, in the identity of their scorers. Jesse Lingard, a revelation in Russia, came off the bench at Wembley to score five minutes after his introduction and clear crucially off his line a further four minutes later. Harry Kane, the World Cup Golden Boot winner, ended an international drought that dated back to the last-16 tie with Colombia to add the decider.
The captain had missed a hat-trick of chances in swift succession in the first half but he illustrated his talismanic prowess. He persevered, and so did England. In the process, they leapfrogged Spain. Croatia, who were on course to win the pool when Andrej Kramaric put them ahead, instead ended up relegated: second in the World Cup, they finish third in Group D. England came back in the game, as they had in a group that began with defeat to Spain.
“We kept the confidence, we kept the spirit and the togetherness we have taken from the World Cup,” Lingard said. It showed. “A real test of resilience and patience,” Southgate said. England passed it.
While his side have delivered a more progressive style of play, implemented by younger players, their goals came from age-old methods. This was a triumph by set-pieces. Liverpool introduced a throw-in coach earlier this season and Southgate seemed to benefit from Jurgen Klopp’s thinking. Joe Gomez hurled the ball in, Kane poked it past Lovre Kalinic and Lingard, who has forged a reputation as a scorer of spectacular goals at Wembley, had the simplest of finishes from half a yard.
His was a catalytic cameo. “We knew we had some game-changers on the bench,” Southgate said. The Manchester United man came on for Fabian Delph, a surprise starter but a busy, influential presence, and was on sentry duty by the post to stop Domagoj Vida from restoring Croatia’s advantage. It meant that, when Kane applied the final touch to Ben Chilwell’s free kick, England had transformed defeat and demotion into victory. The Leicester City left-back’s input was instructive, too: Southgate was rewarded first for omitting the World Cup stalwart Ashley Young and then preferring Chilwell to Luke Shaw. His decision-making has often been excellent.
England had carried where they left off in beating Spain last month, using their new 4-3-3 system to attack at the start. “We dictated a lot of the game and had some really good chances,” added Southgate.
After Ante Rebic spurned an early opportunity, Raheem Sterling missed one and Kane three. Profligacy seemed a problem when Kramaric twisted and turned, leaving John Stones sliding in vain in the dirt. His shot took a telling deflection off Eric Dier. “Quite a soft goal,” said Southgate. But England, who have long struggled to beat the elite when it has mattered, did so for the second time in a few weeks.
“It was effectively a quarter-final,” said Southgate. England have won two of them in 2018. Now they have a semi-final in 2019. Southgate concluded: “We have had a very good year but we have to make sure that is just the start.”