England should have secured their first Nations League victory after manager Gareth Southgate’s men dealt with the quirks of playing behind closed doors and had the best chances against Croatia.
Just 93 days after the Three Lions lost to Zlatko Dalic’s men in the World Cup semi-finals, the countries met in surroundings that could scarcely have been more different to July’s huge encounter at the packed Luzhniki.
The virtually-empty Stadion HNK Rijeka hosted England’s first match behind closed doors as Croatia completed a ground ban imposed by UEFA for having a swastika on the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.
Eric Dier and Harry Kane hit the woodwork on a night when Marcus Rashford wasted two great chances, meaning the opportunity to exact World Cup revenge went begging as the Group A4 encounter ended goalless on a strange night for all involved.
Every shout, kick and challenge was audible in the match played out in front of a few hundred officials and journalists. You could even hear the beeping of an ambulance reversing behind one of the goals.
There were regular, distant cries from a small group of hardy England fans who had found a vantage point high above one of the stands, but their efforts were rewarded with a poor first half in which Dier hit a post late on.
England improved after the break as Kane struck the woodwork before Rashford missed two fine chances, and Ante Rebic curled just wide for a Croatia side that had lost their Nations League opener 6-0 in Spain.
Southgate’s men face their own Spanish test on Monday without the suspended Jordan Henderson and John Stones, but there are certainly promising moments on which to build.
There was also a glimpse of the future as 18-year-old substitute Jadon Sancho became the first player born this millennium to play for the senior side, and 21-year-old Ben Chilwell impressed.
The Leicester left-back provided a fine cross 12 minutes into his first England start and Raheem Sterling would have tucked it away were it not for Josip Pivaric’s intervention.
There was precious little else of note in a largely drab half in Rijeka where Croatia found the best way to stop England’s rapid attackers was scything them down. This approach earned Mateo Kovacic and Dejan Lovren bookings.
Henderson’s own yellow card in the sixth minute rules him out of Monday’s trip to Seville, where England will face another top-level midfield.
Southgate will be buoyed heading there by the fact that Croatia did not get as much joy in that department as they did in Moscow.
Ivan Perisic’s blocked effort was the best they managed in the first half until overlapping Pivaric fired over a cross to Andrej Kramaric, with the former Leicester striker’s mis-hit attempt stopped by Jordan Pickford.
Southgate’s men failed to force a save in the first period, but came close to the opener just before half-time as Dier met Henderson’s corner with a glancing header that hit the far post.
Rashford tried his luck from distance and Perisic stung the palms of Pickford when play resumed before England struck the woodwork again.
Henderson swung in a free-kick from the right and Kane got away a header that beat goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic only to come back off the crossbar.
Penalty claims were rejected as Ross Barkley, making his first England appearance in 868 days, went down in the box and Stones’s frustration at that decision resulted in a foul that brought a booking and suspension.
Southgate’s side were now in the ascendancy and Rashford should have put them ahead.
Two minutes after failing to greet a fine Kyle Walker cross with the finish it deserved from close range he was put through by Sterling, but somehow failed to beat Livakovic.
Tin Jedvaj was perhaps fortunate to only see yellow for a late challenge on Dier, but Croatia had now settled and Kramaric had a chance before Rebic curled just wide from 20 yards.
Kane saw an effort correctly ruled out for offside and seemingly broke the net in the process, leading to a pause in play that saw England fans get a wave from Pickford.
Sancho showed flashes of excitement after his 78th-minute introduction, with his threatening late cross causing problems in a match that ended goalless.
Croatia: Livakovic, Jedvaj, Lovren, Vida, Pivaric, Kovacic (Badelj 73), Rakitic, Kramaric, Modric, Perisic (Pjaca 68), Rebic (Livaja 80). Unused substitutes: Sluga, Bartolec, Milic, Mitrovic, Rog, Bradaric, Pasalic, Santini.
England: Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Sterling (Sancho 77), Henderson, Dier, Barkley, Chilwell, Rashford, Kane. Unused substitutes: Butland, Trippier, Alexander-Arnold, Dunk, Gomez, Winks, Chalobah, Mount, Maddison, Bettinelli.
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany).