No fans, no goals: England and Croatia play to a dull draw
Deprived of a seat inside the stadium through no fault of their own, a small band of loyal England supporters watched the game from a hilltop overlooking the virtually empty ground.
There wasn’t much to see.
England and Croatia played to a 0-0 draw in the UEFA Nations League on Friday, a lackluster match that took place in front of no fans as the Croats completed a stadium ban imposed in 2015.
While this was Croatia’s fifth behind-closed-doors international, it was a first for England, and that made it a somewhat bizarre experience for not only the players but the few dozen fans who decided to travel to the coastal city of Rijeka to support their team.
The shouts of the players and the thud of a kicked ball could be heard distinctly, as could the occasional chants of “Enger-land” and “God Save The Queen” that drifted into the stadium from outside. The only people in the stands were match delegates and members of the media.
Given the eerie atmosphere, perhaps it was no surprise the game was such a dud. England struck the goal frame twice — through Eric Dier and Harry Kane — and Marcus Rashford wasted two golden opportunities when one-on-one with the goalkeeper as England had the better of the chances.
This was a repeat of the World Cup semifinal won by Croatia in July, and it seemed a world away from that tense, nerve-jangling night in Moscow.
The two teams are searching for the form they showed at that tournament, in particular the Croatians. This result came after last month’s 6-0 loss to Spain in their opening match of the Nations League. England lost 2-1 to Spain its Group 4 opener in the top-tier League A.
Looking to the future, England coach Gareth Southgate gave a debut to Jadon Sancho as a late second-half substitute, and the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund winger impressed with some surging runs down the right flank.
Croatia had received the stadium ban from UEFA three years ago when a swastika was painted on its field ahead of a game.
Romelu Lukaku has been toiling at Manchester United in recent weeks, but he can’t stop scoring for Belgium.
The striker scored twice in a 2-1 win over Switzerland in Group 2 of League A, adding to the double he had for the World Cup semifinalist against Iceland in their opening group win last month. Lukaku, who now has 45 goals in 78 international matches, hasn’t scored in his last six appearances for United in all competitions.
Lukaku’s winner came in the 84th, after Mario Gavranovic had equalized for the Swiss in Brussels.
The winners of the four three-team groups in League A will advance to the Nations League finals in June.
In the second-tier League B, Marko Arnautovic scored Austria’s goal in a 1-0 win over Northern Ireland that got the team off the mark in Group 3. Bosnia-Herzegovina tops the standings with two straight victories, while the Northern Irish are yet to earn a point.
In League C, Finland won 1-0 at Estonia and Greece beat Hungary by the same score, leaving the victorious teams as the top two in Group 2.
In Group 2 of League D, Belarus beat Luxembourg 1-0 to jump to first place, while Moldova beat San Marino 2-0.
The Nations League guarantees at least one of Europe’s low-ranked League D teams will qualify for Euro 2020 through the playoffs.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80