Harry Kane inspires England comeback to seal UEFA Nations League finals place
LONDON -- Three thoughts on England's 2-1 win vs. Croatia in League A, Group 4 of the UEFA Nations League.
1. England gain some revenge on Croatia
Four months after an agonising World Cup semifinal defeat in Moscow, England optimism again looked set to be punctured by Croatian resilience and experience. However, Gareth Southgate's team, as we are finding out, do not follow the same old scripts and engineered a stirring comeback that enhanced the feelgood factor and did much for a burgeoning competition's reputation.
A match that, for both teams, offered a place in the UEFA Nations League finals or relegation, played out with the level of drama it deserved; Croatia took the lead through Andrej Kramaric, only for the home side to score in the 78th and 85th minutes -- through Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane respectively -- to send Wembley into rapture.
Though it took a while to be confirmed, it was a win that looked likely early in proceedings. Croatia pressed high early in the game but England were prepared, playing around their opposition and looking for the early ball to release Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, who moved at an entirely different speed to the panicked defenders assigned to track them.
Sterling should have done better than to fire straight at goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic when played through by Kane, and moments later England's captain startlingly fluffed his lines when Ross Barkley's corner was flicked to him by John Stones.
Time and again, England's best work was denied only by last-ditch defending. Kane saw a goal-bound shot blocked by Tin Jedvaj and a follow-up saved by the scrambling Kalinic. Croatia weathered the storm and made it to the break on level terms, having failed to register a shot on target.
Rashford and Sterling's speed and fearless running continued to be the likeliest route to a breakthrough early in the second half, but it was Croatia who went ahead. Rebic led a lightning counter-attack and fed Andrej Kramaric, who wriggled left and right before clipping a shot off Eric Dier's outstretched leg and beyond Jordan Pickford.
The sense of deja vu grew as England attacks crumbled against a Croatian wall on the 18-yard line, but Southgate's substitutions turned the tide. On came Dele Alli, followed by Lingard and Jadon Sancho, to inject fresh legs and ideas and it did not take long for the changes to take effect.
Lingard poked in the equaliser from all of a yard after Kane scrambled the ball past Kalinic following a long throw, which set the stage -- as a deafening Wembley attempted to suck the ball into the visiting goal -- for captain Kane to stretch and divert Ben Chilwell's free kick into the bottom corner.
2. Kane's barren run ends at opportune time
It is impossible to watch Kane and think he is operating at full capacity. His return of six goals in 12 Premier League matches for Tottenham is respectable by normal standards, but not by his own exceptional levels, while heading into this game he had failed to find the net in seven consecutive England games.
And when he failed to divert Stones' flicked header into the net in the first half, then saw two more efforts blocked by Jedvaj and Kalinic respectively, it looked like another afternoon that would belong to someone else. However, even if he lacks a little of the physical sharpness that powered his very best seasons, Kane's penalty-area instincts will never be in doubt.
He was the driving force behind England's fightback, showing the composure to control Kyle Walker's long throw and poke the ball through Kalinic's legs to set up Lingard's equaliser, then reacting quickest to send Chilwell's whipped free kick just inside the far post with a right-footed poke.
England have not been able to count on a forward with such proven big-game international pedigree since injuries claimed Michael Owen, while the last one with Kane's leadership qualities was Alan Shearer. Southgate is very lucky to have him.
3. Is Croatia's glorious era coming to an end?
But for Southgate's substitutions and Kane's decisiveness, this match would have stood as yet another monument to a Croatia side that has continued to defy belief and logic in the months since their memorable run to the final in Russia.
It is easy to forget that Zlatko Dalic's men lost their opening UEFA Nations League game 6-0 to Spain. Just to go into this Wembley showdown with a chance of reaching the competition's final four was a staggering achievement and they fell just 12 minutes short of making history at the expense of England again.
To do so without Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, both absent through injury, and just three days after emerging victorious from another gruelling battle with the Spanish, is even more impressive. However, while their Croatia's energy reserves have seemed limitless this year, perhaps physical exertion finally took its toll as England ramped up the pressure in the final minutes.
This group has reached unprecedented heights under Dalic, but it is tempting to wonder if it might be the beginning of the end. Mario Mandzukic has retired, and Luka Modric and Rakitic are the wrong side of 30. Meanwhile, those waiting in the wings do not appear to be of the same level.
Tier B of the UEFA Nations League will at least offer an opportunity to refresh and rebuild, be it Dalic or his successor. Moreover, if recent history has taught us anything, you underestimate Croatia at your peril.