Kane secures progress in gutsy English display
England 2 Croatia 1
Same old story, different ending. For 77 minutes this was just another story of England playing a big match against a strong opponent: wasted chances, lost momentum, punished at the back.
It was almost a rerun of the defeat to Croatia in the Luzhniki four months ago, but just for lower stakes.
But then, in 13 thrilling minutes at the end, England produced something they have hardly managed before in a big game like this - a dramatic two-goal turnaround, turning defeat into victory, bottom into top, relegation into progression.
First it was Jesse Lingard tapping the ball across the line after Croatia had failed to defend a long throw; then Harry Kane stabbed home after Croatia had failed to defend a free-kick.
Both goals were scrappy and owed something to good fortune. But it was not so much the performance, as the fact that England pulled this off, that mattered most.
That says a lot about the development of this young England team, that they continued to push, and were rewarded, even when staring defeat and relegation in the face.
Gareth Southgate has often spoken about how international football is decided by the finest margins, and he is right.
Think back to the World Cup: David Ospina nearly saved Eric Dier's wining penalty against Colombia; Harry Kane should have put England 2-0 up in the semi-final.
Or even in this Nations League campaign: Danny Welbeck had an equaliser questionably disallowed against Spain; Marcus Rashford should have won England the game in Rijeka last month.
The point is that the difference between success and failure can be decided by the smallest bounce or touch.
And this was one of those rare occasions, with everything on the line, when England seized the little crucial details and grabbed them their way.
There is a special skill in scoring out of nowhere like this, especially when it matters this much, even if the overall performance was a mixed bag.
Much of this game went along the same lines as the semi-final from July. There was the same fast start, when England started to get in behind Croatia; the same wasted chances, as England failed to fully exploit their early superiority; the same sense that Croatia were slowly taking the sting out of England's attack, taking control, pulling the game their way.
There are some legitimate criticisms of this England performance: the failure to take any of their first-half chances, the way they let the second-half drift, the soft defending to get done like they did on the break.
But no performance can be perfect. And this time, unlike last time, England found a way to overcome their flaws.
No player is more emblematic of this improvement than Harry Kane. He gets plenty of criticism for not looking dangerous enough in front of goal for England, and for missing that chance to put England 2-0 up in the World Cup semi-final.
But this was a reminder that he is unique and irreplaceable in this England team.
Had Lingard not tapped the equaliser over the line then Kane would have scored both goals, two clever instinctive finishes in busy penalty areas after he read the bounce.
This does not mean that winning this game is 'revenge' for losing the World Cup semi-final, or that it constitutes a rebalancing.
England will have to get to the World Cup final in Qatar in four years' time to make up for that.
However, what this does show is all that anyone could have asked for: that Southgate's England are still improving as a team.
Just looking at the wins over Spain and Croatia shows that they can do things now that would have been considered miles ahead of them at the start of the year.
Beating two sides better than them, the 2010 World Champions and the 2018 World Cup runners-up, and playing focused football with a clearer sense of identity than ever before, shows just how far England have come under Southgate.
And now they have a target to aim for in 2019, in the form of the Nations League finals, so there is the prospect of another year of progress on the cards now. (© Independent News Service)