England concede a late goal and fail to advance to the quarter-finals of the Euro Under-21 Championship.
A penalty from Eberechi Eze and a fine strike from Curtis Jones were not enough to secure their progression, as they needed to win by two clear goals.
Domagoj Bradaric’s late stunner secured Croatia’s quarter-final progression.
Tempers spilt over after the final whistle, with Jones shown a red card amid a scuffle with Croatia players.
The knockout phase is scheduled to take place between 31 May-6 June.
Defeats against Portugal and Switzerland meant England, who have now failed to advance past the group stage in five out of the last six competitions, needed the two-goal margin to progress on goal difference.
Aidy Boothroyd’s side, who have failed to advance from the group stage for two successive competitions, finished last in their group – level on points with Switzerland and Croatia but with Croatia edging the three-way head-to-head on goal difference.
England, who managed just one shot on target in the tournament before this match, showed marked improvements on their previous two defeats as Dwight McNeil caused Croatia problems and Liverpool’s Jones looked spritely, later scoring the critical and well-deserved goal.
Boothroyd, who led the under-21s to the last four in 2017, had said that this match was the biggest of his career and described his job as manager as “utterly impossible”.
Five players failed a late fitness test including Ben Godfrey, Tom Davies and Emile Smith Rowe, forcing Boothroyd to make seven changes to his starting XI.
England looked nervous in the opening minutes, losing the ball and struggling to keep their composure, but were awarded a penalty on 11 minutes when Eddie Nketiah was deemed to have been fouled before Eze tucked away confidently.
Croatia created chances, with Aaron Ramsdale forced into a superb save as England gave the ball away in their own half, leaving Luka Ivanusec one-on-one with the Sheffield United keeper.
The Young Lions looked brighter in the second half and a low finish into the bottom corner from Jones, who started his first game for England in this tournament, looked to be enough to ensure a place in the next round.
But a wonderful strike from Bradaric in injury-time sealed England’s fate as they were punished for their poor form in previous matches.
This may well have been Boothroyd’s last game in charge of the Under-21s, as his contract is due to expire in the summer.
‘We gave ourselves a mountain to climb’
England U21 manager Aidy Boothroyd speaking to Sky Sports: “I thought tonight we were excellent, we’ve been criticised for not being creative but tonight we were very creative in everything we did. But we missed chances we would normally take and to lose in the manner we did to get in the position where we were in and he’ll [Bradaric] never score a goal like that again – that is very disappointing.
“As far as the group, we gave ourselves a mountain to climb and we almost did it but unfortunately we lose out by one goal and they’re the fine margins. It’s devastating now but an experience like this is something that stays with you forever and will benefit the players in their careers and that’s what the U21s is all about – it’s a developmental team.”
On whether he is the right man for the job: “I think so – the amount of players that have come through this season would suggest there is a pathway working. Our youngest players know they have a chance to play in the first team because of the way we’re structured. Of course it’s important and we want to win but to produce players and win tournaments at the same time is very difficult. I love being involved with these players, I enjoy it and it makes it more difficult to deal with this and answer questions. I will keep going and we’ll see what happens.”
- 2SverkoSubstituted forMusaat 86’minutes
- 11BradaricBooked at 45mins
- 3BabecSubstituted forZaperat 64’minutesBooked at 87mins
- 21SpikicBooked at 62minsSubstituted forColinaat 64’minutes
- 17BistrovicSubstituted forMajerat 76’minutes
- 7IvanusecBooked at 11mins
- 14VizingerSubstituted forDivkovicat 86’minutes
- 15TangangaBooked at 85mins
- 3KellyBooked at 45mins
- 8GallagherSubstituted forCantwellat 72’minutes
- 16SkippBooked at 90mins
- 17JonesBooked at 90mins
- 21McNeilSubstituted forS Sessegnonat 89’minutes
- 9NketiahSubstituted forBrewsterat 71’minutes
- 11R Sessegnon
- 14S Sessegnon
- Harm Osmers
Match ends, Croatia U21 1, England U21 2.