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Harry Kane ensured a year to cherish would end with a bang as England came from behind today against World Cup semi-final foes Croatia to reach the inaugural Nations League Finals.
Just 130 days after breaking English hearts in Moscow, Zlatko Dalic’s men looked set to prove the scourge of the Three Lions once more as Andrej Kramaric’s deflected effort left them staring down the barrel of relegation.
But a stirring comeback from Gareth Southgate’s side brought a memorable year to a fitting conclusion, with substitute Jesse Lingard scoring and clearing off the line before captain Kane secured a late 2-1 win which sees them top Group A4 ahead of Spain.
Baddiel & Skinner’s Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home) rang around Wembley after a victory that condemned Croatia to relegation — the icing on the cake as England brought down the curtain on a year which saw them re-engage with the public and restore pride.
For a long time it had looked like this match would go the same way as Moscow. England were on top but failed to convert a glut of first-half chances, with Leicester flop Kramaric capitalising on poor defending before firing a shot in off Eric Dier.
Southgate’s side struggled to recover from that sucker punch, but Lingard turned home in the 78th minute to set up a grandstand finish.
The substitute stopped Domagoj Vida’s header on the line, with 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.
Southgate allowed himself a wry smile after the final whistle at the way they got themselves back into the game, having earned a reputation at the World Cup for the style of football they played.
“I thought we dictated a lot of the game and had some really good chances in the first half and should have been ahead and then we let quite a soft goal in,” he said.
“That is a real test of resilience and patience. We rode our luck a little, but, with their counter-attacks and one cleared off the line and for all the good football we played, we scored from a long throw and a set play.
“Maybe we’re not a new England, maybe we’re the England we’ve always been.”
The national team boss was also happy with the way his side handled going behind against the run of play and bounced back with victory and felt it showed the progress they were making.
“We didn’t discuss the relegation at all. We just saw this as an opportunity, it was effectively a quarter-final,” he added.
“None of us knew what this tournament would be like, but the atmosphere in the stadium and the emphasis on the game because of what has happened in the last few months really rose as we want forward and that’s great because we had to live with the pressure of playing at home.
“We have come out of an incredibly tough group. In terms of form and world ranking, ours is the toughest.
“We haven’t just sat back after the summer and preened ourselves, the players have progressed.
“I think people can see the style, people are starting to believe in what we are doing, but the biggest thing for me is the connection with the fans. I’ve not seen new Wembley like that since I’ve been in charge.”
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