This morning I took my toddlers to play football at ‘Mini Shooters’ and the crowd watching the tots run around with a ball was larger than the one England played before last night.
UEFA’s decided the best form of punishment to the Croatian FA for that infamous Swastika in the grass incident, was to play this Nations League game behind closed doors and in doing so went a long way to killing their own fledgling tournament.
Rather than play this match on a neutral venue or deduct Croatia 2 points, we got the bizarre spectacle of a rerun of this years World Cup semifinal being played on a bobbly pitch in a tiny empty stadium.
With no crowd or atmosphere to feed off this felt like a reserve team match, the first hAlf proved to be dishwater dull. England for whom Gareth Southgate had sprung a surprise by switching to a 4-3-3 formation, started the better and Ben Chilwell’s cross forced goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic to divert the ball away from the onrushing Raheem Sterling after 12 minutes.
Croatia had the lion’s share of first half possession but rarely looked like opening England up, their one clear sight of goal coming when a neat dummy by Ante Rebic gave Andrej Kramaric a clear sight of goal but his shot provided a routine stop for Jordan Pickford. England created the best chance of the half when Jordan Henderson’s corner found Eric Dier who directed his header onto the post just before the break.
England amped up the tempo after half time but it was Croatia who produced the first chance with the lively Ivan Perisic blazing a shot wide. Then England assumed control and should have taken the lead. First Harry Kane smashed a header onto the crossbar on 51 minutes, then Marcus Rashford found himself clean through but miscued his shot straight at Livakovic. On 57 minutes Kane’s persistence won the ball in front of the goal and Sterling’s through ball released Rashford who again failed to beat Livakovic.
Croatia were rattled and left-back Tin Jedvaj was fortunate to escape with a booking for a poor late challenge on Dier. But the chances dried up and both teams became cautious, Modric played a trademark raking pass into the path of Kramaric who again failed to take his chance on 67 minutes. A bit of history was made on 78 minutes when Jadon Sancho became the first player born in this millennium to represent England. Sancho took a few minutes to find his feet, but once he got the ball he terrified Croatian defender Josip Pivaric with his pace and trickery and forced Livakovic into evasive action with a teasing cross in the dying minutes. Croatia also spurned a late chance when Jedvaj got in behind England down the left but failed to make the most of it and the game ended goalless.
England were certainly the better side but were left to rue those missed chances, it leaves them needing a win in Seville on Monday night to keep their hopes of making the Nations League Finals alive. It does however mean that barring a huge goal difference swing a win over Croatia at Wembley next month will guarantee at least second place and avoid relegation to Division B.
There were major positives for England: Sancho’s debut, a promising return for Ross Barkley and a man of the match performance from Chilwell. Southgate can also take some plaudits for his switch in formation that wrong footed Croatia. On the downside Sterling was again ononimous and despite a lively performance Rashford missed those two guilt edged chances. England will also have to cope without John Stones & Henderson in Seville, where they will face a buoyant Spain who thrashed Wales 4-1 in Cardiff this week. But despite the soulless atmosphere and missed chances Southgate can take satisfaction from a solid performance proving his side can match Croatia for style. It’s just a shame nobody was there to see it.