England came from behind against Croatia to win both the match and their group in the thrilling final game of the UEFA Nations League Group Stage. The victory sends the Three Lions through to the Semi-Finals of the competition which take place next June.
Croatia, the side which sent England home from the World Cup this summer, looked as though they would win yet again after Andrej Kramaric scored for the visitors in the 57th minute. Kramaric, who plays his club football with Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, seemed to have an eternity to shoot. When he finally picked his spot his attempt was deflected off Eric Dier’s thigh past a diving Jordan Pickford.
The scoreline didn’t reflect the football being played as England were dominating in terms of chances but couldn’t seem to convert them into goals. Croatia, on the other hand, managed to find the back of the net with their first effort on target. If the result stayed the same England would have been relegated to Group B of the Nations League.
Gareth Southgate was determined to make sure his side wouldn’t be lumped together with other poor international sides such as Germany, falling from the upper echelon of European football that is the Nations League Division A. He brought on Dele Alli early on in the second half before making a double substitution ten minutes later with in-form Jadon Sancho and Jesse Lingard coming on.
These substitutions proved pivotal in the England comeback. Jesse Lingard tapped home an equaliser with 12 minutes of ordinary time left before Harry Kane scored from a Ben Chilwell free kick. The Croatian side was stunned. In seven minutes they had gone from topping the group to being relegated.
The atmosphere around Wembley was electric. Every one of the 78,221 knew exactly what those two late goals meant. Not only did we save ourselves from embarrassing relegation, not only did we top our group and progress to the Semi-Finals next June, but we took revenge on a Croatian side that ended our World Cup dreams, relegating them in the process. It doesn’t stop the hurt, but it certainly helps.
To add insult to injury for Croatia, the now iconic ‘3 Lions (Football’s Coming Home)’ anthem rang around the ground as the final whistle blew. We may not have won the world cup be we still have a chance of winning the inaugural UEFA Nations League. The newest, and some would argue most elite, international competition there is.
Talking about the victory after the game, Southgate said “I think the most pleasing thing of the year has been the connection with the fans and being able to share brilliant experiences with them. Today was brilliant, I can’t remember the new Wembley like that. We have exciting players that give them excitement.”
“We were by far the better team in the first half and we came back from a soft goal. If you’re going to win a game that’s the way you want to win. We were playing against a very, very good side. To keep the ball, use the ball and create chances was very pleasing. And you have to keep calm, when you think the chances have gone then you have to keep believing.”
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford echoed his manager’s sentiments saying “the atmosphere is probably the best we’ve had at Wembley. This Nations League makes you want to beat the best. We’ve beaten two of the top 10 sides in the world. Now we have another semi-final, it’ll be a good summer.”
Elsewhere in Division A of the Nations League, three more teams joined England in the Semi-Finals and three more joined Croatia in Division B. Netherlands stunned everyone by taking 7 points from a possible 12 and topping a group which included France and Germany. As previously mentioned Germany, who underperformed massively at the world cup, continued their run of poor form winning none of their four games.
Switzerland took the third spot in the Semi-Finals topping their group on goal difference, Iceland finished rock bottom there on 0 points. Finally, the fourth spot went to Portugal who went undefeated in their group, while Poland also failed to register a win.
So, England knows their opponents: Portugal, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. All eyes now turn to the draw that takes place in Dublin on December 3rd. There the match times, venues and fixtures will be announced. If England wants to win their first major trophy since 1966, they will need to win two more games.
Southgate and his players will be confident that they have a good chance of lifting the inaugural Nations League trophy, an achievement that will surely cement Southgate as one of the greatest managers ever to grace the beautiful game.
Joking aside, there is no doubt that this England side is the most promising we have seen in many, many years. We have young players, talented players, playing as a team, not as individuals. Players who want to represent their country, who are proud of what that means.