The enchanted roar in the final whistle told its own story. England, a team that had been flirting with the relegation while this critical contest wobbled in its final stages, ended a calendar year of resurgence appropriately. That period had already been marked by a semifinal of the World Cup, a surprising success over Spain in Seville, and the progression of young and exciting players towards the senior configuration, but now it has culminated in the success of the League of Nations. Gareth Southgate and his players will honor the inaugural finals next summer. That, in itself, is an achievement.
The fact that Croatia, degraded to Division B instead of England, should have shuddered to hear "Three Lions" booming in the public address system after the game, a hymn that had recently motivated them to sing about the Tannoy . The English had dominated this occasion only to race against the race. Even Jesse Lingard's equalizer had not served to dispel his fears of descent, despite all that briefly burst hope in faraway Spain. However, with five minutes to play, overtake the captain to save the day.
Harry Kane had been enduring the longest non-career race of his career in England, a seven-match game in white that dates back to Colombia in Moscow in the World Cup tie. But, after Tin Jedvaj had given Ben Chilwell a foul, the forward was to face the low delivery of the fullback on the stretch, as he crossed the six-yard box. The ball that splashed beyond Lovre Kalinic and England, deservedly, had its relief. The fact of having left this section is impressive, especially considering that the Spaniard won the opening tie here in September and would defeat Croatia 6-0 in their next match. Now there is a one week adventure to enjoy in Portugal next June, a semifinal against another group winner and even the possibility of a trophy. More importantly for Southgate, there is one more opportunity to progress.
It had always been the pace of the hosts that had baffled Croatia. Whether Raheem Sterling slunk down the right side of a Domagoj Life in panic, or Marcus Rashford slipping with a threat on the opposite flank, or even the muscular energy offered by Kyle Walker and Chilwell from behind, the English had come out of the field. At the moment when Ross Barkley's pretty back, conjured in a congested midfield at eight minutes, seemed to calm the nerves. The previous confusion that had presented Ante Rebic with a glimpse of an open goal, Jordan Pickford slipped to reach the pbad of Fabian Delph with his chest to present the ball to his opponent, seemed exorcised by that flash of confidence in himself. The period that followed should have seen the tie claimed before the half-hour mark.
So many glorious opportunities were overlooked, or at least denied by Lovre Kalinic and her line of overworked work. The goalkeeper did well to strangle Sterling's sprint from the depths to Delph's fine clipped pbad, but still Jedvaj and Kalinic again thwarted Kane's attempts to follow from outside the penalty area. The England captain, unbalanced but free of his marker, had already tipped a half volley in the John Stones movement up and down, even though it had been his turn for Dejan Lovren and a cleverly weighted pbad that had freed Sterling . On that occasion, the striker, with his head down and apparently concentrated, chose not to frame Rashford by begging Kalinic to block the shot.
Chilwell's volley, bouncing awkwardly in front of an unseen Kalinic, was also rejected by Sime Vrsaljko, who did not want to see the half hour before limping, doing well to slip and choke Rashford's load. That opportunity had come from Pickford's long and accurate punt field after the Croatian pressure. There was bite and threat if England was long or was more patient in his approach game. Critically, what they lacked was progress, and the longer the contest with missed opportunities was prolonged, the more likely it was that the visitors, so ready to get rid of a result, would swoop down.
Their own goal goals had been fleeting but, knowing they had to score to have any chance of progress or survival, Croatia was always more urgent. It was a counterattack that gave its reward, substitute Josip Brekalo exploiting space on England's left before providing a fine pbad for Nikola Vlasic. His pbad taken quickly changed the ball through Andrej Kramaric, squeezing the space initially Kyle Walker, to accumulate near the penalty spot. The striker twisted and turned, looking for a clear view of the goal and puzzling Stones and Eric Dier in the process, with his final shot off the Tottenham midfielder to shoot agonizingly past Pickford.
Understandably, everything became quite anxious after that, the hosts contemplated having to score twice to save the occasion and the Croats felt a greater reward forever. However, when Pickford was diving to get away from Vida's powerful header, the home team had at least restored parity. The long shot by Joe Gómez, a rather crude route to the goal, given the orderly and orderly previous unsuccessful incursions, came to Kane at the far post and, although Kalinic stood on the sidelines with his feet, the substitute recently introduced Lingard tapped virtually from the goal line. That prepared the dramatic end of Kane, and a victory that had Southgate hitting the air on the sidelines. The progress is undeniable. The momentum is maintained with England.