It was nothing less than Gareth Southgate’s side deserved after dominating over 90 minutes at Molineux against a rigid but dangerous Croatian side.
And England had to do it the hard way, after falling behind to an early goal from visiting striker Marko Livaja and then being faced with what was a ten-man defence at times.
England U21s 2-1 Croatia U21s
UEFA Euro U21 Championship
Play-off first leg
Friday 10 October 2014
Molineux, Wolverhampton Wanderers
The Three Lions didn’t panic though and after Harry Kane headed them level early in the second half, they then had to wait until the 85th minute to take the lead and it was thoroughly warranted as the West Brom striker drew cheers from the fans who would normally be jeering him.
England controlled possession from the start, but were dealt a blow after just 13 minutes as Livaja was left unmarked in the six yard box to head home after Filip Bradaric’s pacy corner and a flick-on from Matej Mitrovic caught them out.
It was just the start that England didn’t need but they looked to get themselves back level straight away, as Kane was bundled over on the edge of the box only to put his free-kick over the bar.
Luke Shaw then broke into the box from the left and struck a shot past ‘keeper Dominik Livakovic, but it crashed against the inside of the post and rebounded to safety.
Livakovic kept his side level with a stunning save to tip Nathan Redmond’s 25-yard drive over the bar, before Liam Moore powered a header over from Tom Carroll’s resulting corner.
Will Hughes then slipped at the crucial moment just as he’d skipped around his marker in the box after another neat move had picked out the Derby County man, with the Three Lions doing all the pressing by this stage.
Michael Keane climbed highest to guide another Carroll corner towards goal, but Livakovic was in the right place again to make a save and England were left waiting for a break.
But despite their pressure and domination on the ball, the hosts still had to be wary as Croatia were always ready to pounce on any mistakes or opportunities to break away themselves.
The warning signs were there, as Ante Coric placed one shot narrowly wide of the post following a long ball from the back, before Marko Pjaca’s dipping shot had Jack Butland scrambling back onto his line before dropping over.
Croatia just managed to see off England’s strong spell of pressure though, taking the sting out of the game to hold their lead until half time.
England continued to ask questions of Croatia after the break and they got a deserved equaliser just shy of the hour mark, when Berahino’s cross from the left channel picked out Kane who stooped to guide a glancing header past Livakovic at the near post.
The pressure in the second half was never as sustained from England, but Southgate was left with a tricky choice of pressing further up in search of a winner, or making sure his side took a result to Croatia next week.
But when Berahino got onto the end of a pass in the area with the clock ticking toward full time, he was tripped by Livakovic to give the referee no choice but to point to the spot.
The striker got up to dust himself down, before drilling a low shot into the bottom corner to give the Three Lions a warranted lead with his ninth goal of the campaign and undoubtedly the most important so far.
England Under-21s (4-3-3): 1 Jack Butland (c) (Stoke City); 2 Michael Keane (Burnley, loan from Manchester United), 6 Liam Moore (Leicester City), 5 Ben Gibson (Middlesbrough), 3 Luke Shaw (Manchester United); 4 Will Hughes (Derby County), 10 Tom Carroll (Swansea City, loan from Tottenham Hotspur), 8 Jake Forster-Caskey (Brighton & Hove Albion); 11 Nathan Redmond (Norwich City), 9 Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), 7 Saido Berahino (West Bromwich Albion).
Substitutes: 14 Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur) for Keane (46), 17 Thomas Ince (Hull City) for Hughes (56).
Substitutes not used: 13 Jonathan Bond (Watford), 12 Luke Garbutt (Everton), 15 Jamaal Lascelles (Nottingham Forest, loan from Newcastle United), 16 Lewis Baker (Chelsea), 18 Patrick Bamford (Middlesbrough, loan from Chelsea).
Head Coach: Gareth Southgate
Goals: Harry Kane (57), Saido Berahino (85)
Cautions: Eric Dier (70), Liam Moore (85)
Croatia Under-21s (4-5-1): 12 Dominik Livakovic; 2 Dario Zuparic 5 Niko Datkovic (c), 6 Matej Mitrovic, 3 Antonio Milic; 7 Marko Pjaca, 4 Filip Bradaric, 8 Domagoj Pavicic, 18 Ante Coric; 11 Ante Rebic; 14 Marko Livaja.
Substitutes: 10 Mario Pasalic for Coric (63), 17 Drazen Bagaric for Livaja (70), 13 Mato Milos for Milic (90)
Substitutes not used: 1 Matej Delac, 9 Stipe Perica, 16 Mijo Caktas, 19 Karlo Brucic.
Goals: 14 Marko Livaja (13)
Head Coach: Nenad Gracan.
Cautions: 2 Dario Zuparic, 8 Domagoj Pavicic, 10 Mario Pasalic
Referee: Xavier Estrada (Spa)
Assistant referees: Jose Manuel Fernandez Miranda & Francisco Javier Martin Garcia (Spa).
Fourth official: Eduardo Iglesias
Video highlights of the first leg of the Euro play-off at Molineux