With time ticking away at Wembley England appeared to be heading towards another disappointing defeat at the hands of their newest international rival.
But, unlike in this year's World Cup semi-final, it was the hosts who finished on the front foot, clinching a 2-1 win over Croatia.
The Nations League may not carry the prestige of a World Cup, but the pressure was on in front of 78,221 expectant fans and England delivered to finish top of a group containing high-class opposition.
If their 3-2 victory in Spain last month was the stand-out result, then this was the culmination of the improvement under Gareth Southgate.
England show depth
Before the match Southgate made the point that he believes England are a better side with more depth four months on from the World Cup.
His line-up proved the point, with in-form Premier League players Ross Barkley, Ben Chilwell and Joe Gomez as well as the dependable Fabian Delph all starting ahead of more regular faces.
And in the first half the manager’s belief was illustrated as Barkley and Delph – chosen ahead of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard – ran the midfield well, always looking forward and on the front foot.
England’s midfield largely by-passed Luka Modric as Delph and Barkley switched the ball quickly to find willing runners in Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling behind Croatia’s slightly leaden-footed defence.
With the hosts’ dominance shown in all but the half-time scoreline, there was danger around the corner and so it arrived.
Andrej Kramaric pivoted over and over again in the penalty area before his shot deflected off Eric Dier and slowly looped past Jordan Pickford.
The touch off Dier was unfortunate but indicative of a player who has struggled to find his role at the base of midfield.
To Southgate’s credit he took the positive step, first bringing on Alli, followed by Lingard and Jadon Sancho, in search of the two goals England needed to go through.
Rashford’s spark frustrated
England had been much the better side, but couldn’t quite unlock the resilient Croatia they knew all about from previous encounters.
Rashford summed up their performance – full of endeavour but just lacking the finishing product. The Manchester United man charged down the left on several occasions without finding the telling move.
Croatia left too much space, especially in the first half, and Rashford frequently located it, linking up well with Kane and Raheem Sterling.
Only a last-ditch sliding tackle by Sime Vrsaljko stopped him going clean through, while both Tin Jedvaj and Marcelo Brozovic were booked for fouling the 21-year-old.
Lingard scores at Wembley again
It was Rashford who left the pitch to allow Lingard and Sancho on with 17 minutes to go, ushering in a Wembley specialist when England most needed him.
Lingard netted in United’s 3-2 win over Southampton in the EFL Cup final last season to make it three consecutive goals at the national stadium.
And having scored a lovely curling strike in the 3-0 friendly victory over the USA last week he provided another telling Wembley goal, tapping in from Harry Kane’s toe-poke to make it 1-1 in the 78th minute following Gomez’s long throw-in.
It was his only contribution, but exactly what England had lacked – someone on the right spot at the right time to make their pressure count.
Kane on the spot
England needed to strike again to avoid relegation from Group A4, and with the crowd now roaring on in support they went about finding it.
Chilwell had been a willing outlet from left-back throughout the game, but his delivery from open play and set pieces was far from ideal, with nine corners bringing nothing.
However, having won a free-kick on the left-hand side he had the confidence to step up and take it, with his low ball finding its way through the box to Kane, who stuck out a right foot to divert the ball into the bottom corner.
The Tottenham striker’s 20th international goal in just his 35th appearance was perfectly timed and typical of a natural finisher and leader on the pitch.