England rounded off a year to remember by progressing to the inaugural Nations League finals with a stirring comeback against World Cup semi-final foes, Croatia.
Yesterday’s clash at Wembley looked to be going the same way as July’s encounter in Moscow.
England were on top, but failed to convert a glut of first-half chances, with Leicester flop, Andrej Kramaric, capitalising on poor defending, before firing a shot in off Eric Dier.
Southgate’s side struggled to recover from that sucker punch, but Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard turned home in the 78th minute to set up a grandstand finish.
The substitute stopped Domagoj Vida’s header on the line, with Harry Kane turning home Ben Chilwell’s free-kick five minutes from time to send Wembley wild and secure England a shot at silverware in Portugal next summer.
Victory sent England into the Nations League finals next year — the icing on the cake, having this year matched the country’s best-ever World Cup display on foreign soil and secured a thrilling, 3-2 win in Spain last month.
Asked if he could have envisaged 2018 panning out so well, England manager, Southgate, said: “No, I don’t think so.
“I am hugely proud of all the players and all of the staff, because we’ve grown together, we’ve improved every step.
“I think today was another big occasion, big experience. Plenty of pressure on the game, expectation, but they coped with it really well.
“I thought we played so well in the first-half and had good chances; should have been ahead in the game, then had to show another side, the resilience and the character to stay in it.
“We had a five-, 10-minute period, after Croatia scored, where there was a couple of counter-attacks, and then we may be a new England, but we score from a long throw and a wide free-kick, so maybe nothing changes.”
England top Group A4 ahead of swashbuckling Spain and World Cup finalists, Croatia, whose late collapse at Wembley saw them relegated from the top tier of the Nations League.
It was the perfect end to 2018, for an England side that now looks forward to an exciting year, with Euro 2020 qualification kicking off in March, before a semi-final and potential shot at silverware in the finals in Portugal.
“The World Cup was obviously far bigger,” Southgate said, when asked how winning this group ranks in his managerial achievement. “But, then, you’ve got to look at, ‘OK, what’s the next challenge and do we make the next challenge worthwhile and rewarding?’
“This was a great opportunity to really test ourselves against top teams, so we now have more opportunities to excite our supporters and connect them with the team. Next year looks like a really exciting year to look forward to.”
Croatia manager, Zlatko Dalic, says football is “coming home very soon”, after backing England for success in the near future.
Although they left it late, Gareth Southgate’s men were worthy of their win, as they backed up the impressive victory in Spain last month with a superb first-half showing.
After answering his post-match press conference questions in Croatian, Dalic ended proceedings by switching to English to declare: “It’s coming home, very soon.”
He earlier said, in Croatian: “I think England showed already at the World Cup.
“They, I think, exceeded expectations. They have a really young and very fast team, which is very important in modern football.
“I’d like to congratulate England on a deserved win and for qualifying for the final four of the Nations League.
“We didn’t play very well in the first-half and we were a little bit lucky to get into half-time at 0-0.
“I’m not very sad. We played as men. I am proud of my team and I congratulated them on their performance.”
England: Pickford, Walker, Gomez, Stones, Chilwell, Rashford (Sancho 73), Dier, Delph (Lingard 73), Sterling, Barkley (Alli 63), Kane.
Subs Not Used: Butland, Alexander-Arnold, Dunk, Keane, Shaw, Winks, Loftus-Cheek, Wilson, McCarthy.
Croatia: Kalinic, Vrsaljko (Milic 26), Lovren, Vida, Jedvaj, Modric, Brozovic, Rebic (Brekalo 46), Vlasic (Rog 79), Perisic, Kramaric.
Subs Not Used: Livakovic, Mitrovic, Caleta-Car, Bradaric, Pasalic, Badelj, Pjaca, Pivaric, Letica. Booked: Jedvaj, Brozovic, Lovren.
Ref: Tasos Sidiropoulos (Greece).