GARETH SOUTHGATE was delighted to see his side sign off a successful 12 months in style – and the England boss is already targeting even more progress in 2019.

England’s final game of the year saw them score two goals in the final 12 minutes to claim a 2-1 win over Croatia that extracted at least a degree of revenge for July’s World Cup semi-final defeat and secured a place in the last four of the Nations League.

Jesse Lingard cancelled out Andrej Kramaric’s opener, before Harry Kane stabbed home an 83rd-minute winner to ensure England topped their Nations League group and avoided relegation to the second tier of European nations.

Southgate’s side will head to Portugal next June for the inaugural Nations League final tournament, with the semi-final draw due to take place in Dublin on December 3, the day after the groups for Euro 2020 qualifying are determined.

By qualifying for the four-team finals in a group that also featured Croatia and Spain, England have maintained the progress they made during this summer’s World Cup finals and ensured they will have plenty to play for over the course of the next 12 months.

“The World Cup was obviously much bigger, but you’ve got to look at what the next challenges are,” said Southgate. “This was a great opportunity to test ourselves against top teams, and we now have another chance to excite our supporters and connect them with the team. Next year now looks like an exciting year to look forward to.

“All the players that are involved want to give their all, and all the young players want the opportunity to be a part of it. That feeling proves the team is really powerful, and you’ve got to buy in to that.

“The atmosphere today was fantastic - I haven’t seen Wembley like that for a lot of years. If Wembley can be like that for the next few years, we’re going to have some significant games where the fans can really help us.”

Whereas England had wilted in the face of a Croatian attacking onslaught during the World Cup finals, they successfully turned things around yesterday after falling behind.

They spurned a succession of chances in the first half, with Raheem Sterling once again proving profligate, and were heading for Nations League relegation when Kramaric scored via a deflection off Eric Dier.

They stuck to their guns though, and after sending on Lingard and Jadon Sancho from the bench, Southgate was able to watch his side stage a thrilling finale.

This time last year, they were preparing from the World Cup finals draw. Since then, they have made the last four in Russia, beaten Spain in Seville and celebrated a Nations League group success.

“The players should be very proud of what they’ve done this year,” said Southgate. “The quality of their play, the resilience they are showing, and the way in which they’ve come together as a group, that’s all been really pleasing.

“We’re actually starting to take for granted the quality of some of the football that they’re playing out from the back. We’ve developed the way we play, but the next stage was winning these big games. Over the last two months, we’ve really been able to do that.

“We’ve had more consistency, but we’ve got to keep pushing and improving. We’ve beaten three of the top ten teams in the world and that’s really pleasing, but there’s still a lot more to come.”

Southgate reserved special praise for Kane, who had endured a frustrating afternoon before he swooped to convert Ben Chilwell’s late free-kick.

“Quite frankly, Harry is the best goalscorer in the world,” he said. “Whatever the game, you’re always keen to have a player of his ability on the pitch.

“I know some people questioned some of the decisions over the summer (when Kane stayed on the pitch in the latter stages of the World Cup despite a dip in form), but he’s our leader and our penalty taker. We have huge belief in him, and he’s so hungry to lead the team.”

Southgate has transformed England’s style of play since taking over from Sam Allardyce, but the former Middlesbrough manager had a chuckle at the way in which his side scored yesterday’s crucial late goals.

“We’ve talked a lot about being a new England, but we’ve scored from a long throw and a free-kick, so maybe nothing’s changed,” he joked. “In all seriousness though, I’m hugely proud of the players and staff because we’ve grown together and improved every step of the way.

“I think today was another big experience for all the players in the team. We coped with a really tough test. I thought we played some really good football in the first half, and had some good chances.

“We should have been ahead, but they scored and the resilience and character we showed after that was excellent.”