England came from behind to beat Croatia 2-1 – their ninth straight competitive win – in the first leg of their UEFA European Under-21 Championship play-off tie at Molineux.
Gareth Southgate had reiterated his desire in the build-up to see his Young Lions team continue to play "with a certain style". Though they were ascendant – composed in possession with bite in the tackle – for much of the game, the visitors initially showed a clinical edge England lacked, going in front on 13 minutes when Marko Livaja headed in at the back post after Filip Bradarić's corner was flicked on.
That was just the third goal the hosts have conceded all campaign, a far cry from the 31 scored at the other end. Manchester United FC full-back Luke Shaw nearly added to that tally but struck a post having driven in from the left, with Nathan Redmond and Liam Moore also threatening to equalise.
Though Ante Rebić could have made it 2-0 when he curled just wide on the half-hour, goal No32 arrived for Southgate's side on 58 minutes, Kane stooping to nod in Saido Berahino's delivery.
Matej Mitrović went close to restoring Croatia's advantage with yet another header, but it was Berahino who had the final word when he converted from the spot with five minutes left after being felled by goalkeeper Dominik Livaković. Even from a player belonging to West Bromwich Albion FC – rivals to Molineux inhabitants Wolverhampton Wanderers FC – that raised an almighty cheer from the 23,000-strong crowd. The return leg is in Vinkovci on Tuesday.
Gareth Southgate, England manager
It was a really tough test of us technically, tactically, psychologically – because we went behind – and physically, as they were a strong team with pace and power. We've been tested in every area and we've just come through tonight, but know we've got to overcome it again on Tuesday.
It was a really good game of football – the sort of game you expect when you get to this stage. They showed that they have some technically very good players. They had some players who haven't played in this campaign before, so they've shown they have depth of talent because we know some of those who were on the substitutes' bench can also have an impact.
Nenad Gracan, Croatia coach
I am not unhappy but I am sorry we didn't get a better result from this first leg.
England are a very fast and confident team and were putting a lot of pressure on us, but weren't creating clear chances. Our passing game was a touch disappointing and maybe we were too happy with ourselves when we scored first. In the second leg we will try to pull off a big result, even though we are up against a great opponent.
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