HAVING watched his side stage a fitting send-off for Wayne Rooney last night, Gareth Southgate is targeting a place in the Nations League semi-finals when England return to competitive action this weekend.
Rooney signed off his international career with a 33-minute substitute appearance at Wembley as goals from Jesse Lingard, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Callum Wilson secured a 3-0 friendly win over the United States.
While England were celebrating Rooney’s international career and supporting the striker’s charitable foundation, Croatia were claiming a 3-2 win over Spain in their penultimate Nations League fixture.
Tin Jedvaj’s stoppage-time winner in Zagreb means England will win Group A4 and progress to the semi-finals of the Nations League if they beat Croatia at Wembley on Sunday. A goalless draw would see Southgate’s side finish second, with Spain winning the group, while a score draw or defeat would see Croatia progress to the last four and England relegated to the second tier of European nations.
“It just shows the quality Croatia have, although we already knew that,” said Southgate, whose last meeting with Croatia ended in bitter disappointment as England suffered a 2-1 defeat in July’s World Cup semi-final in Moscow. “We knew it would be a tough game (for Spain) because it was (Croatia’s) first game since the World Cup with a crowd in so we knew it would be a really good atmosphere. They showed their quality, but also their resilience to score in the 93rd minute.
“It’s brilliant, and it sets up a really good end to the year here. It’s a game with plenty riding on it, which is precisely what we want.
“The game tonight will have given them a huge lift. They’ll look forward to coming to Wembley, they’ve got big players who will relish that challenge. We’ve got to relish that challenge as well.
“We were very keen to move on from the World Cup as quickly as possible, and whatever happens on Sunday we’ve had real shoots of progress and achieved some outstanding results. But everybody wants to go to another stage and get to a semi-final, out of a group that is as tough as any in this competition.”
Last night’s game was a celebration of Rooney’s 120-cap career, with the 33-year-old replacing Lingard shortly before the hour mark.
He produced a couple of raking long-range passes, and almost signed off in the grandest of fashions as he swivelled to drill in a low shot in the 90th minute, only for Brad Guzan to claw the ball away.
Nevertheless, Southgate was delighted to have been able to afford England’s all-time record goalscorer the chance to sign off in style in front of an appreciative Wembley crowd.
The England boss was also appreciative of Rooney’s conduct in the last week, and feels the youngsters in his squad will have gained a great deal from working with such an experienced and well-respected figure.
“Wayne was really appreciative that everyone had made him feel so welcome,” said Southgate. “Even for such an experienced player, it can be difficult to walk into a dressing room after so long away. A lot of the players in there, he hadn’t played with.
“He’s been brilliant, the time he’s given to all the players. He made a point of having a chat with all of the younger lads, and we got him to present the three new lads with their caps. He gave them a talk about what playing for England meant to him.
“The hunger he showed in training was remarkable really – he was tracking back in the five-a-sides as if his life depended on it.
“He had a couple of really nice passes, and we were just a yard further away from Guzan from having a fairy-tale ending for him. We were able to look at some younger players and stage a fitting send-off for one of England’s greatest-ever players.”
Rooney was proud to have bowed out with 120 international appearances to his name, and having watched this summer’s World Cup exploits from afar, the Liverpudlian is confident England’s future is in extremely safe hands.
“I think it's great that the FA are celebrating players who have left a mark on international football,” said Rooney. “It's never happened before and it should have.
“I think it is the right thing to do, it was a great thing for me, I asked Harry Kane to present me with the plaque and I hope to do the same for him one day.
“My youngest son has never seen me play for England, so tonight was the first and the last, it will be a great memory for us when the boys are older. It is great for us as a family.
“It's my opinion that England are in very safe hands from what I've seen this week. The way they are being coached is brilliant, it's a great group of young players who have a bright future. They will go close to being the next team to bring a trophy back for England.”