Gareth Southgate hailed England’s maturity and resilience as Harry Kane fired his side into the Nations League semi-finals with a dramatic 2-1 win over Croatia on Sunday.
England were on the brink of relegation to the second tier of the competition after Andrej Kramaric gave Croatia the lead against the run of play in the second half at Wembley.
But Southgate’s vibrant young side pulled off a stirring escape act in the closing stages to gain a measure of revenge for their World Cup semi-final defeat against Croatia earlier this year.
Jesse Lingard came off the bench to poach England’s equaliser and captain Kane was on hand to turn in the winner with five minutes left.
England’s fightback took them to the top of Group A4, above Spain and relegated Croatia, and they can look forward to playing in the last four in June next year.
“I’m hugely proud. We’ve grown together. We’ve improved every step,” Southgate said.
“This was another big occasion. There was plenty of pressure on the game but we coped really well.
“We had good chances and should have been ahead. Then we had to show resilience to stay in the game. We saw the game through with some maturity.
“They should be very proud of what they have done. This is a significant step for us.”
It was a cathartic moment for England, who have made a habit of suffering painful defeats against Croatia, with this year’s World Cup woe following the 2007 loss that cost them a place at Euro 2008.
More importantly, the performance provided further tangible proof that Southgate is building a team capable of challenging for the major prizes after years of under-achievement.
Southgate and his players have changed perceptions of the England team among a previously jaded sporting public over the last year and the Three Lions coach took pride in the jubilant response of fans to their victory.
“The most pleasing thing was the connection with the fans. I haven’t heard Wembley like that for years,” he said.
“We’ve given the fans some memorable days and nights this year. That energy really came back to the team when we needed it at the end today.”
– Close to perfect –
England’s appearance in the semi-finals of the Nations League, which are set to be held in Portugal next June, offers another chance to reach their first major final since 1966.
Following the 3-2 Nations League win over Spain in Seville last month, this tournament has been a serious statement of intent from Southgate’s team and they will go into 2019 with great expectations.
“We know where we sit, we aren’t perfect but we are improving,” Southgate said.
“Slowly we are starting to beat those top teams. We have learned so much from this year, because you have to be close to perfect to beat those teams.”
Despite dominating the first half, England fell behind in the 56th minute.
Kramaric was allowed time and space to turn in the area and the Hoffenheim forward took full advantage, clipping a shot that deflected off Eric Dier and looped over Jordan Pickford’s despairing dive.
But England kept their composure, equalising in the 78th minute when Lingard tapped-in from Joe Gomez’s long throw.
England’s deserved winner arrived in the 85th minute.
Ben Chilwell curled over a teasing low free-kick and Kane timed his run to perfection, guiding his shot past Lovre Kalinic from close-range.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic claimed his side had paid the price for their exertions in Thursday’s win against Spain.
“It was very difficult for us to recover after the match against Spain. We don’t have such a big squad,” he said.
“In the last 15 minutes we lost concentration, which could be down to our condition physically.”
Referencing a popular England fans’ song, Dalic backed Southgate’s team to fulfil their potential soon.
“They have a young and fast team. It’s coming home, very soon!,” he said.