The delighted din at the final whistle told its own story. England, a team who has been flirting with relegation as this critical contest has lurched into its last stages, has a calendar year of resurgence in fitting fashion. That period had already been marked by a World Cup semi-final, a startling success over Spain in Seville, and the progression of young, exciting players into the senior setup, but now has culminated in Nations League success. Gareth Southgate and his players will grace next summer's inaugural finals. That, in itself, is an achievement.
How Croatia, demoted to Division B in England's stead, must have shuddered to hear "Three Lions" booming out over the public address system post-match, which had recently been motivated them to crowing out over the Tannoy. The English had dominated this occasion only to the trail against the run of play. Even Jesse Lingard's equalizer had not been served to all of their relegation fears. Yet, with five minutes to play, step forward to save the day.
Harry Kane has been working on his longest scoreless run of career, a seven-match blanket stretching all the way back to the World Cup's knockout stage at Colombia in Moscow. But, after Tin Jedvaj had fouled Ben Chilwell, there was the striker to meet the full-back's low delivery on the stretch as it fizzed across the six-yard box. The ball squirted past Lovre Kalinic and England, deservedly, had their relief. I have to say that I have not been able to do this in the last few years. It's a week-long adventure to enjoy in Portugal. It's a semi-final against a group winner and even a possibility of a trophy. More importantly for Southgate, there is a further opportunity to progress.
It's always been the hosts' pace which was unnerved Croatia. Whether it was Raheem Sterling scurrying down the right away from a panicked Domagoj Vida, or Marcus Rashford gliding with menace along the opposite flank, or even the muscular energy offered by Kyle Walker and Chilwell from full-back, the English had poured forward from the moment Ross Barkley's cute backheel, conjured in a congested midfield eight minutes in, appeared to settle the nerves. Jordan Pickford has had a glimpse of self-confidence. He has a great sense of humor and a sense of self-confidence. The period should be followed by the tie before the half-hour mark.
So many glorious chances were passed up, or at least denied by Lovre Kalinic and his overworked back-line. The goalkeeper did well to choke Sterling's sprint from deep to Delph's fine clipped pass, though it still took Jedvaj and Kalinic again to thwart Kane's follow-up attempts from outside the penalty area. The England captain, off balance, free of his marker, had already skewed a half-volley at John Stones' nod down high and wide, though he had been turning away from Dejan Lovren and cleverly weighted pass which had liberated Sterling. On that occasion the forward, head down and apparently intent, had opted against squaring for a pleading Rashford with Kalinic blocking shot.
Chilwell's volley, bouncing up awkwardly in front of an unsighted Kalinic, was also denied with Sime Vrsaljko, who would not see the half-hour before limping away, doing well to slide in and choke Rashford's charge. That opportunity had stemmed from Pickford's long, accurate punt up-field after Croatian pressure. There was a bite and a threat of England. What they lacked, critically, was the breakthrough, and the dragon was dragged with opportunities, missed, and felt like that.
Their own sights have always been fleeting, and knowing they had to score to stand any chance of either progress or survival, Croatia was always likely to be urgent. It was a counter-attacking which yielded their reward, the substitute Josip Brekalo exploiting space down England's left before a fine pass for Nikola Vlasic. Kyle Walker, a squeezing space originally from Andrej Kramaric. The striker twisted and turned, seeking out a clear view of goal and flummoxing Stones and Eric Dier in the process, with his eventual shot flicking up off the Tottenham midfielder to the agonizingly beyond Pickford.
Everything is understandably become rather anxious thereafter, the hosts contemplating having to score twice in the occasion and the Croatians forever sensing further reward. Yet, by the time Pickford was diving to push away Vida's powerful header, the home side had at least re-established parity. Joe Gomez's long throw, a rather crude route to the goal, gave him a chance to win the gold medal. virtually on the goal-line. That set up Kane's dramatic finale, and a victory which Southgate punching the air on the sidelines. Progress is undeniable. The momentum remains with England.