International

Euro 2020: Kovacic assist helps Croatia progress, James on the bench as England top group

Mateo Kovacic set up the decisive goal that guaranteed Croatia qualified for the last 16 of Euro 2020 with victory over Scotland, while Reece James was among the substitutes for England as they secured a potentially crucial first place finish in Group D.

That means Billy Gilmour’s Euro 2020 came to a cruel end, but Kovacic, James, Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell all have their hopes of international glory intact.

The day’s big game came at Hampden Park, where Croatia took on Scotland with both teams starting the day on one point, meaning the winner would be in the knockout stages while the loser went out, with a draw ending both teams’ tournaments at the group stage.

Despite Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic making four changes to his side, Mateo Kovacic continued in midfield, but Scotland were without Gilmour following his positive Covid-19 test.

Even without Gilmour in their ranks, it was Scotland who did much of the early running in front of their own fans, forcing several corners and a couple of saves from Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic. They didn’t make it count, though, and just after the 15-minute mark the visitors took the lead.

It came at the end of a long period of possession, with Kovacic heavily involved, before Josip Juranovic’s cross was headed down by Ivan Perisic and Nikola Vlasic swept the ball into the back of the net from near the penalty spot.

They nearly extended their lead soon afterwards when Kovacic did well to recover a loose ball on the edge of the box and lay off the ball for Luka Modric, but the Real Madrid midfielder’s shot was tipped over the crossbar by Scottish keeper David Marshall.

With their lead secured, Croatia relaxed and Kovacic, Modric and Marcelo Brozovic started to dictate the game from midfield. However, before half-time the scores were level again. Centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida both failed to clear convincingly, allowing Callum McGregor to collect the ball on the edge of the box and fire a powerful shot into the bottom corner.

With Croatia searching for the goal they needed in the second half, Kovacic was taking up position much further forward, operating in a number 10 role, but when a loose ball fell to him on the edge of the box he couldn’t make a clean connection with his volley, before the whistle blew for an offside in the build-up anyway.

The Chelsea man then provided the assist at the end of a fine team move for Croatia to retake the lead. Following a long spell of possession, centre-forward Bruno Petkovic toed the ball to Kovacic, who then teed it up invitingly on the edge of the box for Modric, and the Real Madrid player curled a brilliant first-time shot past Marshall with the outside of his boot.

Scotland upped the tempo and looked direct to try and find an equaliser, but it was Croatia who looked most likely to find the next goal, with Kovacic having another go from the edge of the box, but hitting his shot straight at the keeper. The away side did get their safety margin before too long, though, when Perisic headed in a Modric corner to make the final score 3-1.

The other game in Group D had been stripped of some of it’s Chelsea involvement as Mount and Chilwell were forced to self-isolate after being in close contact with Gilmour after England’s draw with Scotland. That left just Reece James on the bench for the Three Lions as they hosted the Czech Republic at Wembley.

Both teams were already assured of their place in the next round of Euro 2020, but England needed a win to leapfrog their opponents and finish in first place in the group.

The breakthrough came even earlier in London, as Raheem Sterling, who had already hit the post with a clever chip, opened the scoring by heading in Jack Grealish’s cross from close range after 12 minutes.

England were having all the possession, with Harry Kane twice being denied from close range by goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik. They still had to be wary of the threat the Czechs posed on the counter, though, as shown when Tomas Holes had Jordan Pickford scrambling to palm away one effort and then Tomas Soucek fired another just wide.

The Three Lions saw out the second half in relatively comfortable style, with little in the way of goalmouth action, with the exception of Jordan Henderson having a second for England ruled out by VAR for offside.

All of that meant England finished top of Group D, meaning they will stay at home at Wembley for their last-16 tie, which will be played next Tuesday, by when Mount and Chilwell could potentially be back in contention. They will face the side that finishes second in Group F, which could still be any of France, Germany, Portugal or Hungary.

Croatia’s third goal against Scotland moved them ahead of the Czech Republic in the table on goal difference, so as runners up they will next be in action in Copenhagen on Monday, against the side that comes second out of Sweden, Slovakia, Spain or Poland in Group E.

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