England played out a largely uneventful stalemate with Croatia behind closed doors in Rijeka to earn the first point of their Uefa Nations League campaign.
The whole occasion had an air of unreality as the teams – who met in the World Cup semi-finals three months ago – were forced to play in a mostly deserted, echoing stadium as part of Croatia’s punishment after a swastika was painted on the pitch before a European qualifier in 2015.
England coped well with the surreal surroundings and had the better chances – Eric Dier and Harry Kane heading against the woodwork either side of the interval, and Marcus Rashford producing two bad misses with only Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic to beat.
Croatia, winners when these countries last met, threatened only occasionally and England manager Gareth Southgate will feel a tinge of regret his side are not moving on to Monday’s meeting with Spain in Sevilla on the back of a victory.
England’s eerie night in Rijeka
From the sound of the high fives of England’s players echoing around the stadium before kick-off, to the distant voices of visiting supporters somewhere on a hill near the ground asking goalkeeper Jordan Pickford for a wave, this was a surreal evening on the Adriatic coast.
It was perhaps inevitable that a game played in such an artificial atmosphere took 45 minutes to get going – and to suggest it then became a thriller would be stretching credibility to breaking point.
As a one-off 90-minute experience it was fascinating as the sparse gallery listened to the constant cajoling of Pickford, heard Jordan Henderson ask Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic was he the referee in less than complimentary terms, and discover Southgate’s squad have a distinctly unimaginative line in nicknames.
England, by far the noisier team, adjusted to these eerie surroundings better than the home side – denied their noisy, passionate support because of Uefa’s disciplinary measures.
What it did prove, as if there were any doubts, is football is nothing without fans. Their absence robbed this occasion of its heart and soul, and England will be glad to be back playing in front of supporters again when they face Spain.
Southgate’s encouragement on surreal night
This was as far away from a World Cup semi-final in Moscow as it was possible to get – a packed, vast bowl of a stadium replaced by a barely populated arena with the peace only disturbed by the shouts of players and occasional polite applause.
England avoided defeat this time, but any comparisons between the two occasions are utterly futile.
Southgate can take some comfort, however, in the fact England adapted to these unusual surroundings better than Croatia and created by far the better opportunities.
Dier and Kane both headed against the woodwork – but it was a miserable night for Rashford, who was guilty of two glaring misses, one when he shot tamely at the keeper when he was unmarked and seemed certain to score.
There was also a lively cameo on his debut from Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, the first player born in this millennium to play for England.
It was a night when definitive judgements were impossible – but there are plus points Southgate can take away.
Chilwell shines but Barkley only flickers
Leicester’s 21-year-old left-back Ben Chilwell celebrated his full England debut by receiving his shirt from former Foxes striker Emile Heskey – and went on to produced an assured performance that bodes well for the future.
Chilwell was sharp in challenges, sound with his distribution and produced a high quality first-half cross that almost brought a goal for Raheem Sterling.
He can look back on his night with pride in playing his part in a clean sheet and England’s first point in this Nations League campaign.
It was a more frustrating night for Chelsea’s Ross Barkley, given his first England appearance since May 2016 after his recent renaissance.
The 24-year-old produced occasional flashes, especially when driving into the area amid penalty claims when he tangled with Ante Rebic – but too often his game was loose in possession and, perhaps understandably, he looked nervous.
Barkley will hope for another chance to prove he is on his way back to his best after a lost period of his career.
Man of the match – Ben Chilwell
Sancho becomes second youngest England player – the stats
- England drew against Croatia for the first time since April 1996, in what was the first meeting between the two countries.
- England had just five shots against Croatia – the fewest in an away game since June 2013 against Brazil (two).
- At 18 years and 201 days, Sancho is the second youngest England player to win his first cap in a competitive game, behind only Duncan Edwards (18 years and 183 days) in April 1955 against Scotland.
- Sancho is the first outfield player to make an appearance for England while playing for a club from outside of the UK since David Beckham (LA Galaxy) against Belarus in October 2009.
- England have kept a clean sheet in each of their past four away games – their longest such streak since a seven-game run ended in October 1997.
- Sterling has gone 1,810 minutes without a goal for England – last scoring for the Three Lions against Estonia in October 2015.
- Kane has failed to find the back of the net in each of his past six games – his joint-longest run for England (six from June-September 2016).
Southgate not concerned by winless run – what they said
England manager Gareth Southgate, speaking to BBC Radio 5 live, said: “There would be more concern if we weren’t creating chances. We showed good endeavour and creative play. We have to keep getting in those situations.”
On moving to a back four: “We wanted to keep continuity in September but we felt this system was the best way to go. The players did well. It meant we were able to get tighter to their midfield and we were able to get higher up the pitch.
“I don’t think we should ever be rigid and only have one way of playing. In the summer we had a system which allowed our players to embed into international football but now they are more experienced.
“With the young players we have coming through and their positions, having wingers would suit us as well.”
On the performances of Sancho and Chilwell: “We know Jadon can have an impact in the game. When he did receive the ball, he was a threat.
“Ben Chilwell was excellent. His use of the ball was good and his defending was patient. He should be really pleased.”
England captain Harry Kane, speaking to Sky Sports, said: “It was hard without the atmosphere and I thought we dealt with it well. The first half was even. In the second half we really came into it and if we’d been a bit more clinical we’d have won.
“When you walk out and the national anthem is on and you’re singing it to no-one – hopefully it’s something we don’t have to experience too many times in our career. We appreciate the support even when no fans are allowed in the stadium.
“The pitch was tough, we had one off the bar, one off the post and Marcus had a couple I’m sure he’d take on another day.”
England travel to Seville to face Spain in their next Uefa Nations League fixture on Monday (19:45 BST). Croatia host Jordan on the same evening in an international friendly (19:45 BST).