England earn Finals trip with late fightback

Jesse Lingard (wearing gloves) embracing Harry Kane after the England captain scored a late winner against Croatia to seal their passage into the Nations League semi-finals. Lingard had earlier equalised for the World Cup semi-finalists after the Cro
Jesse Lingard (wearing gloves) embracing Harry Kane after the England captain scored a late winner against Croatia to seal their passage into the Nations League semi-finals. Lingard had earlier equalised for the World Cup semi-finalists after the Croats had taken the lead against the run of play.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • The delighted din at the final whistle told its own story.

England, who had been flirting with relegation as their Nations League A Group 4 contest with Croatia lurched into its latter stages, have ended a calendar year of resurgence in fitting fashion.

That period had already been marked by a World Cup semi-final, a startling success over Spain in Seville, and the progression of young, exciting players into the senior set-up, but has now culminated in Nations League success after a 2-1 win over Croatia at Wembley yesterday.

Gareth Southgate and his players will grace next summer's inaugural Finals. That, in itself, is an achievement, while Croatia were relegated to League B.

The Three Lions had dominated the occasion only to trail to Andrej Kramaric's second-half strike against the run of play.

Even Jesse Lingard's equaliser had not served to allay their relegation fears, as Croatia defended with numbers to hold on to their lead.

Yet, with five minutes to play, captain Harry Kane saved the day.

Kane had actually been enduring the longest scoring drought of his England career, a seven-match blank stretching all the way back to their second-round encounter with Colombia at the World Cup in Russia.

But, after Tin Jedvaj had fouled Ben Chilwell, there was the striker to meet the full-back's low delivery on the stretch as it fizzed across the box. The ball squirted past Lovre Kalinic and England deservedly had their relief, which Kane later claimed was "deserved".

"The lads kept going - we showed character, stayed calm. In games like this, you have to stay calm and keep playing," said the Tottenham Hotspur star.

"The World Cup was great, but we want to keep progressing and the only way to do that is by beating big opposition."

To have emerged from Group 4 is impressive, not least given that the Spanish beat England 2-1 in the opening tie in September and thrashed Croatia 6-0 in their next fixture.

Now there is a week-long adventure to enjoy in Portugal next June, a semi-final against another group winner and even the possibility of a trophy.

And, more importantly for Southgate, there is a further opportunity to progress.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2018, with the headline 'England earn Finals trip with late fightback'. Print Edition | Subscribe