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Southgate urges Three Lions to build on fantastic year

Gareth Southgate has challenged his vibrant young England side to build on a year to remember, after they clinched a place in the Nations League semi-finals in dramatic style.

Just over a year ago, England's qualification for the World Cup was greeted with yawns and a barrage of paper aeroplanes from fans disillusioned by decades of underachievement.

But Southgate's team won back their place in the nation's hearts over the course of a remarkable 2018 that saw them reach the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1990.

Although that World Cup run ended with an agonising extra-time loss to Croatia, Southgate and his players have refused to be defined by failure in the way that their more vaunted predecessors in the Three Lions shirt often were.

So when Andrej Kramaric gave Croatia the lead against the run of play in the second half of Sunday's winner-take-all clash at Wembley, it was a coming-of-age moment for England's prodigies.

They rose to the challenge impressively as Jesse Lingard came off the bench to equalise with 15 minutes left before captain Harry Kane poked in the 85th-minute winner.

Kane and his teammates celebrated as Wembley roared in delight and a jubilant Southgate punched the air.

The modest England manager credits his squad for keeping a humble approach amid all the recent plaudits, all the while keeping their focus on the next opponent.

"You can only have that consistency if you work on things every day and have the humility to go back to work," he said.

"The World Cup was far bigger (than the Nations League), but you have to look at the next challenge. This was a great opportunity to test ourselves against top teams."

Southgate also praised Kane, calling him the "best goalscorer in the world".

The England boss added: "You are always loath to take off a player of that ability. His hold-up play, as well as the goals he brings, is critical. He is so hungry to lead the team further."

Southgate, whose commitment to youth has paid dividends, is looking forward to the year ahead.

"That feeling around the team is really powerful and we have to build on that. Everybody who has played for us wants to be part it," he said.

Adding a self-depreciating quip that has won him many admirers, Southgate laughed off suggestions that he has given England their pride back.

"We may be a new England, but we scored from a long throw and a free-kick, so maybe nothing changes," he said with a smile. - AFP