Gareth Southgate was frustrated by the result but not his side’s performance as England ignored the eerie backdrop to draw with Croatia in the Nations League.
Three months after meeting in the World Cup semi-finals, the sides lined up at the virtually-empty Stadion HNK Rijeka as the hosts completed a UEFA stadium ban for having a swastika on the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.
A few hundred officials and journalists were all that were in attendance for the Group A4 encounter, but there was a small group of England fans perched on a hill overlooking the stadium – and their efforts were nearly rewarded with a win.
Eric Dier and Harry Kane hit the woodwork either side of half-time in Rijeka, where Ross Barkley saw a penalty appeal rejected and Marcus Rashford wasted two great chances as the match ended 0-0.
“It feels like a game we should have won,” England manager Southgate said. “I think the performance deserved that.
“First half, pretty even but a very good chance from the corner, which we probably should have got on the end of. They had one from a cut-back.
“They had one reasonable chance in the second half, but I thought, really, we dictated the flow of the game for a long period and the second-half performance was excellent.
“We were pushing and pushing right to the end, so I couldn’t ask more of the players.
“I am pleased with the chances we created, and we just have to make sure we finish them which on another day we will.”
The Three Lions did well to keep their focus on a peculiar night in Rijeka.
History was made as 18-year-old Jadon Sancho came off the bench to become the first player born this millennium to represent England, while full debutant Ben Chilwell and returning Barkley impressed Southgate.
“They’re hugely proud to play in the shirt,” the England manager said.
“We talked just before the game… it’s not an easy pitch either, especially in that final third. A lot of people just slipping with their footing.
“So, that quality in the final third, at times the ball bouncing up at the wrong moment, but good teams adapt and good teams, whatever the circumstances or the atmosphere or the pitch, find a way of playing.
“I was really pleased that the players did that tonight.
“I was particularly pleased with Ben Chilwell. I thought that was a super debut, very composed with his defending against some top-quality players.
“He was patient, he made good interceptions, his use of the ball was very composed, got forward well.
“I also thought Ross Barkley coming back into the team had a very good impact on the game as well.
“We’re disappointed to leave here not having won, but I have to focus on the way that we play and tonight I thought we played well.”
Croatia counterpart Zlatko Dalic dodged a question about the appropriateness of the stadium ban but underlined the importance of social change after his side responded to their 6-0 loss to Spain in their Nations League opener.
“The game was difficult as we expected,” head coach Dalic said.
“We played much better than in the previous game against Spain. It’s still not our top level that we want to play at, but it was much better. We were braver and more decisive.
“We were also a little bit lucky with England hitting the post two times, but overall I am satisfied. I think our game organisation was fine.
“The atmosphere is not easy for anybody. It’s kind of sad for football.
“But hopefully this was our last time and the next match against Spain is going to be 30,000 people, and it’s going to be more fun than today.”
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