After an energetic and considerably improved display, England U21s were just minutes away from the knockout stages of this summer’s European Championships. Then, Lille fullback Domagoj Bradaric produced a stunning stoppage-time strike to send the Young Lions home while booking their place in the quarter-finals – where they’ll play holders Spain on May 31.
England 2-1 Croatia: Young Lions crumble in crunch time
Eze (pen) 12′, Jones 74′ — Bradaric 90+1′
England had more shots on target here (5) than their two previous losses combined – contrasting humblings against Switzerland and group winners Portugal – yet were left to rue a group stage campaign that saw their fate hanging on a knife edge and out of their hands this evening.
“I don’t think I’ve got the words for it [to explain my feelings]. Three minutes away from getting out of a group I think we should have got out of anyway.
Basically we shouldn’t leave it to the last game, get ourselves into a good position, the kid [Bradaric] hit a wonder strike in the top corner and we have to stop it at the source.
It’s all about trying to get us to the seniors, we need to be reliable, see games out better than that, the first two games cost us, we had that chance tonight and it cost us again.
It’s as much about winning as it is about learning, we can take things out of this game but at the end of the day, won’t be coming back in the summer and it’s heartbreaking.”
– England goalkeeper David Ramsdale post-match
It felt fitting that while Portugal were 3-0 up against Switzerland in the other Group D affair, Aidy Boothroyd’s men led through a dubious penalty decision but still needed another goal to consolidate a safe advantage that would’ve taken them into this summer’s knockout rounds.
Goals from Diogo Queiros, Francisco Trincao and the Barcelona man’s replacement Chico Conceicao gave them an unassailable cushion with 25 minutes to play, meanwhile Burnley winger Dwight McNeil hit the post from distance with a well-struck freekick in the other game.
Liverpool’s Curtis Jones, who like Eberechi Eze was making his first start of the tournament, shone brightly in the early going. He struck the crossbar from the edge of the box, was a better touch away from opening the scoring minutes later and grew in confidence as things got tight.
Dinamo Zagreb’s Bartol Franjic was penalised for a foul on Arsenal striker Edward Nketiah, which looked soft at best and probably would’ve been overturned had VAR review been in operation.
Initiating most of the contact himself, England’s captain fell on the 20-year-old’s outstretched ankle when chasing down a loose pass in the Croatia box.
It was no wonder they protested the referee’s decision so vehemently, though their complaints fell on deaf ears as Crystal Palace’s Eze calmly stroked the spot-kick beyond Dominik Kotarski.
They needed a purposeful start to build upon and in fairness to England, their fortuitous finish gave them renewed confidence that they could salvage a forgettable international break.
Croatia certainly had their chances though: Luka Ivanusec left Max Aarons for dead before teeing up winger Dario Spikic, with the goal at his mercy on the half-hour mark. Luckily for Bournemouth defender Lloyd Kelly, who was caught ball-watching, he blazed over the crossbar.
Chelsea’s highly-rated midfielder Conor Gallagher (on-loan at West Brom), another first-time starter in Boothroyd’s 4-2-3-1 formation, had the ball stripped from his grasp in his own half with Ivanusec pouncing as their insistence on building from deep almost proved costly once more.
Aaron Ramsdale made a big reaction save, down low to his right, to keep his shaky teammates ahead. Jones fired wide, Kotarski made saves from Eze and Nketiah while Croatia’s counter-attacking threat was still alive as time wore on and England’s winning margin remained one.
Sheffield United’s Rhian Brewster – on for Nketiah moments earlier – played a decisive role in what looked certain to be England’s all-important goal.
Being fed down the right, he beat Franjic at the second attempt before fizzing a low ball across the box with McNeil doing well to control and tee up Jones, calling for it a few yards behind him.
He fired hard and low into the far corner, leaving Kotarski no chance. Another twist was up next.
Croatia rally back to score stinging stoppage-time strike
Croatia only needed a goal from this position to qualify, head coach Igor Biscan introduced Dinamo Zagreb’s Lovro Majer and he helped create a thunderous stoppage-time effort.
England played keep-ball and looked for cheap fouls too early, inviting pressure on their defence as Boothroyd changed formation to a back three, introducing Steven Sessegnon for McNeil.
After David Colina’s pass, Majer jinked infield and deceived both Sessegnon and fellow substitute Todd Cantwell with a fake cross before sliding the ball back across into Bradaric’s path.
He took a touch to control, another to steady himself and let fly with the third as Oliver Skipp and Japhet Tanganga sprinted out to stop the strike but their efforts were futile.
You could see it arrowing into the top corner as soon as it left his boot. Absolute heartbreak for England? Perhaps, but they didn’t deserve to go through on how they’ve played this past week.
The way they managed this game, despite ultimately winning it 2-1, rather says all you need to know about execution in big moments and the way they’re being coached.
Boothroyd is rightly under-fire and despite stressing an eagerness to continue post-match, progression in these tournaments should be seen as a more important target than simply setting players up for senior team promotion – especially considering Gareth Southgate’s own issues.
Picture source: Getty