London, Sunday @PeopleSports11
Football may not yet be coming home, but it is at least going to Portugal, in June, for the finals of the UEFA Nations League.
A comeback that shows how much this team has grown under Gareth Southgate sent England to the top of an elite group, and savour that sentence for a moment, reducing Spain to also-rans and relegating World Cup finalists Croatia to the ranks of the League B wannabes.
That the win was entirely deserved is pleasing; that England fought back from a losing position doubly so. Yes, it would be nice to be comfortable.
Yet the manner of this victory says much about the squad and its improvement. Young players, emboldened, going places, unafraid.
Previous England teams would have shrunk when Croatia scored against the run of play. Their fear, the absence of self-esteem would have been exposed.
Instead, Southgate made changes, young men off, younger men on mostly, and the tempo upped. Croatia—so cocky in recent weeks while feigning modesty—could not handle it.
They fell to two set piece moves in the space of seven minutes, the first a long throw, the second a free-kick whipped in from the left. Not that England were unsophisticated. They had cut Croatia open with pace and guile in the first-half; they just didn’t take those chances.
This is the second time in roughly four months that England have faced Croatia in a must-win match, and for a time it looked as if the outcomes would mirror.
The first game was bigger, being a World Cup semi-final, but the sense of disappointment would have been greater on Sunday. This was a home game, after all, coming on the back of two very promising away results that were interpreted as the turning of a corner.
Instead, the road looked to be yielding another dead end. Not that England played poorly; they did not. Yet, as in Rijeka last month, England did not take some very good chances.
No team wins the biggest prizes without being clinical in front of goal and England could have been two up, at least, before half-time. Yet while the scores stayed level England were vulnerable. Croatia could go through with a win, Spain with a scoring draw.