Ross Barkley was among the starters as England beat Croatia to finish top in their mini ‘Nations League’ – UEFA’s attempt to inject competition into friendlies.
After beating USA on Thursday night, Croatia proved tougher opposition on Sunday afternoon under the big arch. For a while it looked as if they’d cling on for a victory, but a scrambled equaliser after 77 minutes and a late winner from captain Harry Kane delighted most of the 78,221 in the national stadium.
That 2-1 win was hard-earned. Croatia may have had a touch of fortune with their goal, as No9 Andrej Kramaric’s shot got a deflection as it looped over Jordan Pickford in the 57th minute, but on the balance of play they were worth their lead.
After the relative breeze of the 3-0 win three days earlier in Wayne Rooney’s farewell match, this was a more demanding task for Barkley, who was effectively part of a five-man midfield supporting Kane up front.
Fellow Chelsea midfielder/striker Ruben Loftus-Cheek had come on in the 70th minute for Harry Winks against the USA, while Barkley had to wait patiently on the bench.
But his turn came against Croatia as manager Gareth Southgate took the chance to shuffle the pack and give a few more squad players a chance.
Barkley had a couple of close chances against Croatia as England began the game at the gallop, winning six corners in the first 20 minutes. But he was booked for a strong tackle on the Croatian captain and inspiration Luke Modric (regularly booed by the partisan crowd for his distant Spurs connection) after 26 minutes.
His – and England’s – best opening came five minutes before the interval when a well-struck volley curled the wrong side of the post and hit the side netting.
Barkley was subbed for Dele Alli in the 64th minute, with England desperate for an equaliser after the surprise Croatian goal seven minutes earlier had stunned Wembley into silence… apart from the raucous red and white checked corner of bouncing Croats.
The Chelsea midfielder will have mixed feelings about the match. There’s no getting away from the fact that the Lions equalised after he had been subbed, but it was actually only after Fabian Delph and Marcus Rashford were retired from the field in the 73rd minute (replaced by Jadon Sancho and Jesse Lingard) that the tide turned.
Lingard scrambled in the equaliser from barely six inches, toeing it over the line to level in the 78th minute, while Kane stretched out his leg to trickle home the winner and finally silence the Croatian fans with five minutes of normal time remaining. Three Croatian players were booked in the last 20 minutes as they complained loudly about the decisions the Greek ref was making… but there was no arguing with the final scoreline.
England will now progress to the competition’s final stages in June in Portugal. It also means England automatically qualify for the 2020 Euros.