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18th Nov 2018

England cap a year to a remember with a reminder that even better times lie ahead

Simon Lloyd

And so, four months on from that disappointing night in the Luzhniki, England exacted some form of revenge on Croatia

Of course, this was not a World Cup semi-final, merely a passage to the finals of the Nations League, a new tournament nobody really appears to know how seriously to take. But it was – as the celebrations which greeted full-time appeared to show – a victory that mattered, more so given the manner with which it was achieved.

England had been well on top for the first half, creating (and wasting) several decent chances. This continued in the early stages of the second half, making what followed all the more inevitable: Andrej Kramarić, receiving the ball with his back to goal on the edge of England’s six-yard box, wriggled away from several defenders before firing home an opener via Eric Dier’s kneecap.

For all their dominance, Gareth Southgate’s men, in true ‘Typical England’ fashion, were behind.

Admittedly, the circumstances were different in many ways, but it was difficult not to make parallels between the game in Moscow in early July. England were a spent force beyond the early stages of the second half that night and offered little in the way of a response to Ivan Perišić’s equaliser or what proved to be the winner from Mario Mandžukić in extra-time. Having scored their first, Croatia, with Luka Modrić orchestrating things, had controlled the rest of the game. After taking a lead at Wembley, the early signs were that Modrić would assume a similar role as Croatia sat deeper and deeper, content to pick an increasingly desperate England off on the break.

Southgate’s hand was forced as his side faced Nations League relegation, he responded by making two attacking substitutions in Jesse Lingard and 18-year-old Jadon Sancho.

Both changes worked. The introduction of the exciting Sancho seemed to stir the home support, whereas Jesse Lingard was in the right place to nudge an England equaliser over the line with little over ten minutes still to play. It had been scrappy, the product of a long Joe Gomez throw which Croatia had failed to deal with, but England were suddenly a goal away from reaching the finals in Portugal next June.

With England aware that a score draw would still have been enough to relegate them, Harry Kane was able to prod home an 85th minute winner. A Ben Chilwell free-kick was curled into the area, allowing Kane to guide the ball into the far corner with his outstretched right boot.  This time, it was Croatia who couldn’t find a response.

It was a fitting way for England to sign off in 2018, a year that has seen Gareth Southgate’s men surpass all expectations. The Euro 2016 exit to Iceland was a low point, and few had expected the national side to reach the final four of a World Cup within two years. And while it may be fair to point out that England’s run in Russia was relatively straightforward, this victory, as well as the one over Spain in Seville last month, suggests there may be something more about this current crop than simply luck.

This team are still young. They will get better. As they do, England fans’ hopes will make way for genuine belief. This could be just the start.