England have qualified for the semi finals of the UEFA Nations League after a stunning late comeback saw them beat Croatia at Wembley. The precarious position of their group meant both England and Croatia needed to win to qualify for the Nations League finals, whilst a draw would send Spain through. Adding to the tension was the knowledge that alongside a defeat either side could be relegated to Nations League B by a draw- 0-0 would send Croatia down and a scoring draw would see England relegated.
It gave the game the feel of a second leg Champions League tie after a 0-0 draw in the opener. Gareth Southgate named close to a full strength team with Kyle Walker, Joe Gomez & Fabian Delph replacing Kieran Trippier, Harry Maguire and Harry Winks from the win over Spain last month. Croatia meanwhile were missing the attacking flair of Ivan Rakitic and midfield diligence of Mateo Kovacic, putting extra pressure on star man Luka Modric.
As in the World Cup semi final between these teams, it was England who made the quicker start, but Croatia got the first chance when a loose pass from Delph played Jordan Pickford into trouble and was grateful to see Ante Rebic spoon his effort over the bar. But England persisted with their high tempo and an early run Marcus Rashford had Croatia in trouble. Minutes later Raheem Sterling broke free only to see his shot well saved by Lovre Kalinic.
England were on the front foot and from a corner a John Stones header almost found Harry Kane at the far post but he couldn’t get his body shape right to flick the ball home. Then a lovely through ball from Delph sent Sterling chasing, Kalinic got a fist to it first but only found Kane whose initial effort was cleared and his rebound was saved by Kalinic.
But Croatia gradually got a foothold in the game and it became something of a chess match with England’s best opening falling to Ross Barkley who hit the side netting whilst Rebic again ballooned the ball over in promising positions for Croatia. Modric who dictated that World Cup semi final remained quiet until the stroke of halftime when his deft pass almost found Ivan Perisic but Jordan Pickford read the danger.
England started the second half stronger with Croatia perhaps drained from their heroic efforts against Spain on Thursday content to sit deep, it made attacking hard going for England compared to the oceans of space they found against the Spanish in Betis last month. A mazy run from Rashford almost opened them up whilst a Croatia corner finally gave England the chance to unleash their devastating counter speed with Rashford speeding away and playing in Sterling who couldn’t beat Kalinic.
Then Croatia found a quick counter attack of their own and made it count, Andrej Kramaric picked up the ball in the centre of England’s box and wriggled free of the attentions of Stones and Eric Dier and just when the chance appeared to be slipping away he lifted the ball into the top right corner via a deflection to give Croatia a surprise 1-0 lead on 56 minutes.
Croatia grew more confident on the counter and Perisic threatened to put the game beyond England. Meanwhile England’s passing became ragged and memories of Moscow consumed the Wembley crowd. Southgate rang the changes and brought on Dele Alli and then Jesse Lingard & Jadon Sancho.
As in Rijeka last month it was Sancho who got the Croatians worried, his pace and trickery caused them immediate problems down the right and his clever ball slid in Alli who forced Croatia into evasion action and the concession of a throw. From there Gomez’s long throw was launched into Croatia’s box, Kane got his head then foot to it and as the ball trickled back towards goal Lingard was left with a tap in for 1-1.
With twelve minutes to go the game became stretched with both sides needing the win to book a place in the semi-finals. Croatia went close when Domagoi Vida’s header was cleared off the line by Lingard. But it was England who got the breakthrough when Ben Chilwell’s whipped free kick from the left caused mayhem in the Croatian box and Kane prodded home for 2-1.
Croatia looked stunned and England held firm whilst Sancho and Kane headed for the corners to run down the clock as England held out for a pulsating win. England rightly won plaudits for their excellent first half display but as in the summer weren’t clinical in pushing home their advantage. Ironically after proving through this Nations League campaign their football is becoming more creative, England won through via their most succesful ploy from the summer: set plays. Jurgen Klopp may well have an even bigger grin on his face tonight after Liverpool’s throw-in coach proved instrumental in England’s equalizer. Meanwhile Chilwell, a real find for Southgate this autumn provided a fabulous cross for the winner.
England will now join hosts Portugal, Switzerland or Belgium and either France or Holland in the inaugrual Nations League finals in June. They are also guaranteed a play-off place should they fail to gain automatic qualification for Euro 2020 and remains in the 2020 Nations League A. For now Southgate can rejoice in his sides progress and a measure of revenge for the World Cup semi-final, it seems the Nations League might be coming home.