England’s Under-21 suffered late heartbreak as Domagoj Bradaric’s strike in stoppage propelled Croatia to the European Championship quarter-finals on goal difference despite winning 2-1 from England to Slovenia.
Aidy Boothroyd’s side were doomed to defeats to Portugal and Switzerland in their first two Group D games, which forced them to beat Croatia by two goals and hope for a Swiss loss. Portugal clinched a 3-0 victory to dominate the group, and England were on the right track following an early penalty from Ebere Eze and a 74th-minute goal from Curtis Jones.
But in the first minute of added time, Bradaric hit 20 yards to send Croatia instead, as they set up an eighth meeting with Spain in May, when the tournament resumed. England’s early exit puts additional pressure on Boothroyd, whose contract expires this summer.
England were without Tom Davies, Marc Guehi, Ben Godfrey and Emile Smith Rowe after all failing late fitness tests, while Callum Hudson-Odoi had already returned to Chelsea with a shoulder injury. Liverpool’s Jones, making his first start of the tournament, hit the crossbar from the edge of the zone before England received a controversial penalty.
After 12 minutes, Eddie Nketiah fell under the challenge of Bartol Franjic in the box. Despite minimal contact, referee Harm Osmers pointed to the spot and Eze sent Dominik Kotarski the wrong way to give England a perfect start. Croatia missed out on an equalizer before half-time, with midfielder Dario Spikic shooting eight yards before Aaron Ramsdale saved well from Luka Ivanusec.
Igor Biscan’s men finished the first half in the lead, but England started the second half with more intensity and Kotarski had to be vigilant to save Eze’s low free kick after 50 minutes . Nketiah then shot straight at Kotarski after being released by Eze, before Dwight McNeil’s free kick hit the post just past the hour mark.
Ramsdale conceded Kristijan Bistrovic’s 30-yard free kick and Croatia captain Nikola Moro failed to complete a counterattack, allowing Jones to put England on the brink of qualifying. With 16 minutes remaining, substitute Rhian Brewster passed McNeil to hold the ball and found Jones, who hit a low drive into the lower 15-yard corner.
With 91 minutes on the clock, it looked like England had secured the two-goal win they needed to escape the squad, only for Lille full-back Bradaric to pick Ramsdale’s top corner and sink the Young Lions, who saw Jones kicked out. after the whistle blast as their frustrations overflowed.