LONDON (AP) — Harry Kane’s goalless streak was only five minutes from extending to eight games when the captain finally found the net again for England.
As Ben Chilwell floated a free kick into the penalty area, Kane slid in, stretched out his right foot and nudged the ball into the Croatia net.
It came four months too late to secure a place for England in the World Cup final. But the World Cup Golden Boot winner ensured England went some way to avenging the Moscow semifinal loss to Croatia by turning the tables with a 2-1 victory at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.
While England advanced to the final four of the inaugural UEFA Nations League, Croatia was relegated to the second tier.
Any doubts about what soccer’s newest international competition means to England were dispelled in the relief and glee on Kane’s face as he darted toward the crowd in celebration before being leapt on by Jesse Lingard as the Wembley crowd roared.
Rarely in the 11 years since English soccer’s national stadium was rebuilt has there been such tension for an international game. Not, perhaps, since the opening months when England was beaten by Croatia and denied a place at the 2008 European Championship.
“I’ve never seen (Wembley) like this in an England shirt,” the 25-year-old Kane said. “We are going to enjoy it so I hope the fans do too.”
For a competition that only debuted in September — to replace some largely meaningless friendlies — it has been quickly embraced in soccer’s often-cynical heartland. The comeback from such a young side demonstrated a fortitude so often missing from a country that hasn’t won a major title since the 1966 World Cup.
“The most important thing is the connection with the fans,” England coach Gareth Southgate said. “The energy that came back to the team in those difficult moments helped us get over the line.”
Now England has seven months to contemplate just how meaningful winning the Nations League would be in June. Portugal secured the hosting by winning its group on Saturday. Belgium or Switzerland will seal the third spot on Sunday night, before France or the Netherlands complete the lineup on Monday.
“It’s another semifinal, two wins away from winning a trophy,” Kane said. “We showed that we can beat the big teams. Croatia and Spain are two of the very best in the world. So this is kind of our next step after the summer.”
Croatian players have said since July that they were inspired in the semifinal by what they perceived as arrogant undertones in the “Football’s Coming Home” lyric in the “Three Lions” team anthem. Croatia went on to lose to France in the World Cup final.
The song was played immediately after the final whistle on Sunday and even cited by Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic to congratulate England.
“It’s coming home,” Dalic said in his only post-match comments in English. “Very soon.”
Fatigued after going the distance to beat Spain on Thursday, Croatia was unsettled throughout the first half by England’s pace. But Croatia found its stride in the second half, taking the lead after 12 minutes after cutting through England down the right.
Josip Brekalo played in Nikola Vlasic, who cut the ball across to Andrej Kramaric. Switching the ball between his feet, the midfielder twisted unchallenged before raising a shot into the roof of the net, via a deflection off Eric Dier’s thigh.
“We let a soft goal in,” Southgate said, “and it is a real test of resilience and patience.”
The game turned on Southgate’s double substitution in the 73rd minute that saw Jadon Sancho and Lingard enter. The impact was felt within five minutes and the set pieces that served England so well on the run to its first World Cup semifinal in 28 years proved decisive again.
Joe Gomez’s long throw-in was headed down by Kane through the legs of Hrvoje Millic and Lingard tapped in from close range for his second goal in two games after scoring in a 3-0 friendly win against the Unites States on Thursday.
At the other end, Lingard came to England’s rescue. Domagoj Vida’s header had beaten goalkeeper Jordan Pickford but Lingard cleared off line.
Parity was maintained but England was still facing relegation from Group A4. Only a win would secure top-tier status and with it a place in the semifinals.
For the first time since the last-16 World Cup game against Colombia, and after 747 frustrating minutes, Kane found the target in an England shirt again.
“Harry is the best goalscorer in the world,” Southgate said. “We have huge belief in him. He is so hungry to lead the team on and further.”