Croatia will compete in its first World Cup final after putting England to the sword in Moscow with a dramatic extra-time win.
For the third consecutive match, Croatia was forced to play 120 minutes after the game ended 1-1 in normal time. But unlike in victories over Russia and Denmark, it did not need penalties to decide the outcome as Mario Mandzukic’s 109th-minute winner proved decisive.
Kieran Trippier’s first international goal, an exquisite free-kick in the fifth minute, gave England a lead which was negated when Ivan Perisic drew his team level in the second half.
After a poor first half, when Croatia’s exertions to reach the last four looked to have taken their toll, Zlatko Dalic’s men found seemingly endless reserves of energy after the break to set up a showdown in the Russian capital against France for the sport’s ultimate prize.
Dalic had admitted pre-match that brutal last-16 and quarterfinal matches had impacted his side, but he also said there could be “no excuses.” And despite falling behind, his players made sure there wouldn’t be as Croatia, a country with a population of just four million – one-13th the size of England’s — continued its unexpected journey in Russia.
Youth vs experience
Though it is the third/fourth place play-off against Belgium that England must now prepare for and not a first final in 52 years, these have nonetheless been golden weeks for English football.
After years of misery at major tournaments — from agonizing penalty shootout defeats to group stage exits and, arguably the nadir, defeat to Iceland at the European Championships two years ago — it was a surprise that Gareth Southgate’s team had even reached the last four, which made the occasion all the more joyous for the country’s fans.
Thousands had congregated in fan zones — an estimated 30,000 people had gathered in London’s Hyde Park alone where a special screening had been organized — to watch England compete in a World Cup semifinal for the first time in 28 years. The country’s National Grid even braced itself for a 2,000MW-plus power surge as it anticipated kettles being switched on and beers being grabbed from fridges.
At a time when the country’s government was in chaos, football had offered a chance to forget, to unite and to hope.
Eleven of Gareth Southgate’s 23-man squad featured in that humiliating Euro 2016 loss to Iceland. Lessons had been learned, progress made but when cold-blooded ruthlessness was needed, England’s inexperience on a grand stage such as this told as its young players failed to capitalize on a dominant start.
A tale of two halves
The first half provided little evidence that it would be Croatia, a country which had last reached a World Cup semifinal in 1998, lining up in the Luzhniki Stadium Sunday.
Having taken the lead, England controlled the first half. For players taking part in a match described by their coach as the biggest in a generation, those in white shirts were also impressively composed, though there were occasions when they lost their cool in front of goal.
Harry Kane, the Golden Boot leader with six goals at this tournament, uncharacteristically missed a chance after Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard combined on the edge of the box to send their captain free at the near post. The striker could not curl his shot beyond Danijel Subasic.
In the 35th minute, it was Kane and Alli who combined for Lingard, but the Manchester United forward dragged his effort wide when he should have at least hit the target.
Croatia posed little problems in attack as England’s defense comfortably dealt with the crosses which came its way, while the pace of Raheem Sterling put Croatia’s backline on its heels.
But after the break, Luka Modric — who in this competition has strengthened his claim as the world’s best midfielder — weaved his influence; harrying, going in search of the ball and creating space. Eventually, England folded.
Sime Vrsaljko’s cross from the right flank found Perisic and the forward beat a stooping Kyle Walker to guide the ball home with his outstretched boot.
Minutes later Perisic beat England’s defense again but, fortunately for Southgate’s men, the far post came to their rescue as the Croatian’s driving shot hit the woodwork.
The Three Lions looked like they were to set crumble as Croatia penned them inside their own half.
A lovely ball from Marcelo Brozovic set up Mandzukic who, despite perfectly controlling the cross with his chest, could not steer the ball either side of Pickford. This was to be the last notable chance of normal time.
Mandzukic the hero
Calm restored in possession, England regained momentum in the opening stages of extra-time. Superb on-the-line defending from Sime Vrsalkjo prevented John Stones from heading in Trippier’s corner.
But Pickford was also called into action — brilliantly denying Mandzukic from six yards with an outstretched foot, keeping his team in the match and enhancing his burgeoning reputation.
Mandzukic was ruthless on his next opportunity, however. Perisic headed into the box and the striker drifted in behind John Stones to finish at the near post. It was poor defending and a lapse in concentration which ended England’s dream of reaching what would have been only its second World Cup final.