A dramatic late comeback against Croatia has put England through to the Final Four of the UEFA Nations League, while relegating the World Cup runners-up to second tier League B.
Captain Harry Kane – without an international goal in his last seven appearances since a Round of 16 spot-kick against Colombia at World Cup in Russia on 3 July – hit an 85th-minute winner to complete a come-from-behind win to send the Three Lions through to Portugal in the summer of 2019.
At 1-0 down as of 78 minutes, England appeared destined for the drop from Group A4, with Croatia standing top of a group which also featured Spain. But substitute Jesse Lingard got at the end of goal-mouth scrap, before Kane scored the goal which proved to be a literal table-turner to condemn the Croatians to the second division for the next edition of the Nations League, in 2020.
England Avenge Russia 2018 – and Euro 2008
130 days on from their pulsating clash in Moscow to decide the second finalist of the FIFA World Cup, settled by an extra-time goal from now-retired Mario Mandzukic, England and Croatia contested another edge-of-the-seat affair.
Gareth Southgate’s side dominated a goalless opening half, which saw both Kane and Raheem Sterling miss gilt-edged chances to put the hosts ahead. They were made to pay after the interval when Andrej Kramaric twisted and turned to land the ball beyond Jordan Pickford into the English goal on 57 minutes through a deflection off Eric Dier.
That left England needing nothing short of two goals to move from one end of the standings to the other. Even Lingard’s scrappy equalising goal with 12 minutes left to play would have not avoided relegation – although a draw at Wembley would have seen Spain progress as group toppers, with Croatia second.
Revenge was gained, and not only for a heart-breaking defeat in the World Cup semis; nearly 11 years to the day, another group-concluding tie between the two countries had resulted in England’s footballing nadir – a 3-2 Croatian win in November 2007 meant the 1966 world champions had failed to qualify for Euro 2008.
From Top of the World to Second Tier...in 4 Months
Alright, Croatia weren’t exactly ‘top’ of the world. But their run into the final of the World Cup, making them the smallest-ever nation to reach the biggest game in the sport, was nothing short of extraordinary. The highs from Russia 2018 evaporated a bit when they were mauled 6-0 by Spain to begin their Nations League campaign in September, but a 3-2 win over the same opponents on Thursday, 15 November had set the Vatreni nicely for the final game in Group A4.
While missing Ivan Rakitic, Zlatko Dalic’s side showed similar streaks to that WC semi-final in July for nearly 90% of this encounter. Croatia absorbed the early English pressure, hung on to keep themselves in the contest, and then won the clutch moments in the second half – before letting it all slip away at the death.
The toast of the footballing world as of July 2018, they will be counted among the second rung of European nations next time around. Dethroned world champions Germany, along with Iceland and Poland, join Croatia in dropping down to League B for the 2020/21 season.
Two Thumbs Up to Southgate’s ‘New’ England
The English revolution continues. The hangover from Russia didn’t prove too heavy – and if at all there was any doubting the WC heroics, emerging on top of a group featuring Croatia and Spain lays it to rest.
They’re not choking in pressure games, they’re pleasing on the eye, they’re dismantling lesser opponents with utmost ease, and even finding ways of honouring their heroes: 2018, truly, is an epochal year for English football.
Football may not have come home quite the way they imagined it during the summer; the buzz around Wembley – before, during and, in particular, after the game against Croatia – suggests it may well have.
England join European champions Portugal in next summer’s knockout stage to determine the first winners of the UEFA Nations League, with one out of France and Netherlands, and one among Belgium and Switzerland, to accompany them in the Final Four.