By Neil Leverett
- England come from a goal down to beat Croatia 2-1 at Wembley, topping Group A4 of the UEFA Nations League
- Three Lions finish ahead of Spain as Vatreni relegated to Group B
- Gareth Southgate’s men now face semi-final against either Switzerland, one of France or the Netherlands, and hosts Portugal next summer
WEMBLEY STADIUM, LONDON, ENGLAND – After England’s backs-t0-wall victory over Croatia on Sunday, what did we learn as the Three Lions reach the UEFA Nations League semi-finals?
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Three Lions reach another semi-final
Just four months on from England footballing odyssey in Russia during the World Cup, the Three Lions exacted a measure of revenge for this past July when Croatia beat Gareth Southgate’s men heartbreakingly in extra time as the hosts had their vengeance, coming from a goal down to beat Vatreni 2-1 at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.
After dominating the opening period but spurning a number of openings, it looked to be a similar tale for the hosts as Andre Kramaric’s deflected second half effort looped over Jordan Pickford and the Croats an opening lead that Zlatko Dalic‘s men looked to be holding on to and in doing so, relegate England from Group A of the Nations League.
Just like in Moscow a few short months ago however, the team behind went on to win – happily for the home fans this time – as Jesse Lingard came off the bench to score a 78th-minute leveler, before the host’s Golden Boot-winner Harry Kane was on hand to slide home the winner seven minutes later.
As North London and indeed the nation erupted, Southgate’s men held out for a merited win, as Croatia drop down to Group B, with Spain holding firm in A. Moreover, England will now look ahead to the last four of the tournament as they, Switzerland – after stunning Belgium 5-2 in Lucerne on Sunday night – one of either France and the Netherlands and hosts Portugal meet in June, to decide the Nations League winner.
This past summer took the country on a sporting voyage of ecstasy and torment, as the country rediscovered belief in the Three Lions once more; This coming summer is sure to stir up the emotions again, with a chance of silverware on the horizon.
‘New’ England boast resilience
The weekend’s backs-to-the-wall victory was again further evidence of the new England mentality, in refusing to give up but above all, that the will and belief is there that the job will get done.
After early signs against Tunisia in the World Cup, that feeling was cemented with a penalties victory against Colombia and Sunday’s showdown under the famous arch was more fuel to the fire, at a venue which in the past as seen may glorious failures for the national team.
There has been much talk of this new and exciting era for England, with for once it seems a plethora of youth, talent and exuberance at Head Coach Southgate’s disposal.
But with the promise of the likes of Jadon Sancho, Ben Chilwell, Harry Winks and Callum Wilson as newly initiated members of the England fold, potential is nothing without the final end product.
The evidence so far is clear. A famous victory was achieved in Seville a month ago when few if any expected anything close to draw. On Sunday, when staring down the barrel of dropping down to Group B, England dug into their newly honed resilience and again reached their destination.
Southgate credit due again
The England coach continues to thrive as the steward on the bridge of the good ship Three Lions, but Southgate cannot get enough credit for not only making the right switches in personnel, but getting said individuals to deliver when required.
A goal down with fifteen minutes to play and with hope beginning to fade, the former England defender replaced both Marcus Rashford and Fabian Delph – both of whom had impressive outings – for Sancho and Lingard.
Whilst Sterling had given a headache to the Croatian back line for much of the opening period, the Manchester City winger’s influence was waning on the game, but with Sancho as a second pace option and with Lingard playing central, the spaces suddenly opened up as the hosts threw the kitchen sink at the visitors.
Southgate and England are the perfect fit for one another, and after an endless search for right man to finally guide the Three Lions into calmer waters with a real sense of optimism, it is now hard to see anyone else as the man to lead forward England for many a year.
Once maligned Delph is extra midfield option
As documented, both Rashford and Delph had good outings on Sunday, but it was the latter who shone brightly facing a midfield of Luka Modric and Marcelo Brozovic – albeit minus talisman Ivan Rakitic.
Delph, who even in his switch to Manchester City from Aston Villa, has often been a much maligned individual due to the consensus of the status as bit-part player. After his showing against Croatia however, could now become another option in midfield.
Having been named captain in England’s win over the USA four days earlier, Delph was pushed forward from occasional Citizens role of left-back into the heart of the England engine room, as Jordan Henderson was ruled out with injury.
Playing opposite Eric Dier, the versatile midfield marshaled the middle of the field with aplomb few imagined impossible in an England shirt, both driving his side forward but providing the support in defence, as Croatia toiled in the first-half.
Both Dier and Henderson have become critical options for Southgate’s play, but after Delph played his own hand this weekend, the City man could become a different and more dynamic option for England.
The Nations League matters
At the inception of the UEFA Nations League format, there were many that doubted the relevancy, merit or even whether the newly introduced concept would matter little and be regarded as just a glorified friendly.
Tell that to the 90,000 fans that packed out Wembley Stadium on Sunday afternoon, as the home fans witnessed a rousing fightback from their side. But that has been recurring theme in not just the top Group of the competition, but pools B, C and indeed D.
The motivation of promotion and relegation, coupled with the award of genuine silverware for the eventual winners has been an excellent concept for the football association that has rightly been on the end of its’ fair share of criticism.
The Nations League however could be one of UEFA’s crowning achievements, and even with standard qualification getting under way in March, when the next round of Nations groups are drawn in 2020, the feeling will be not so much of another long-winded run of empty games, but of genuine intrigue.
The draw for the qualifying stages of UEFA Euro 2020 takes place in Dublin, Ireland on December 2 at 11am GMT.
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