Croatia did not even exist the last time England reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. Now, 28 years later, the Balkan nation barred the way. A 2-1 extra-time victory in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow sent Croatia through to Sunday’s Final back here against France. England head instead to Saturday’s third place play-off against Belgium in St Petersburg.Croatia players celebrate following their sides victory in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Semi Final match between England and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium on July 11, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
The opportunity appeared to be there for England to seize when Kieran Tripper put them ahead with a fourth-minute free kick. As time ran on, however, so they ran out of steam. Man of the match Ivan Perisic equalised deservedly in the 68th minute before Mario Mandzukic struck the Croat winner three minutes into the second half of the extra period.
Croatia’s story is remarkable. A nation of 4m people has produced two outstanding teams in little more than one generation. The first ended up third in their debut World Cup in 1998 and now a second has emulated that crop and reached the final itself for the first time.
Coincidentally it was against France, in France, that they lost the 1998 semi-final. Not only that but match-winner Perisic learned his football there after his family moved when he was teenager.
Perisic said: “It was a difficult game because we all know what was at stake and how important a semi-final is for a small country like Croatia. We started slowly and showed our character as in the two previous rounds when we were also a goal down and had to come back.
“I have beautiful memories of France but no-one can be happier to play against them in the final than me. My mother told me she had a dream that Croatia and France woud play the final – and now her dream has come true.”
England, when the pain has eased, will reflect on a worthy campaign which saw the third-youngest squad in the tournament carry them further than most had believed possible.
Manager Gareth Southgate said: “I wanted our young team to create memories that would stay with them forever. When you play for England you give everything for your country and play in a way that you hope will connect with the fans and I think the players have done that and we should be proud of that.”
England were quickest into their stride and not only played some of their best football of the finals but took the lead after only three minutes. Modric tripped Dele Alli just in front of the penalty box and Tripper curled a free kick over the wall and under the bar with a style and precision of which Cristiano Ronaldo would have been proud.
There could have been more against a badly rattled Croatia defence. John Stones headed high over from an Ashley Young corner on the left and Harry Maguire headed down down and just wide after a Trippier corner on the right.
In the second half, however, Croatia improved, took command and equalised deservedly in the 68th minute when Perisic stretched out a leg to jab home a right-wing cross from Sime Vrsaljko.
Croatia now had the bit between their teeth. Perisic hit a post then Ante Rebic, with the goal at his mercy, flapped the loose ball into Pickford’s arms. Mandzukic, at close range, was denied by the keeper and then Perisic lofted over the bar when Pickford miss-punched a clearance.
In extra time England might have regained the lead but a John Stones header was cleared off the line and Croatia took the lead for the first time in the 108th minute. England failed to clear and Mandzukic reacted faster than John Stokes to shoot Croatia into the final against France . . . the team who beat their first golden generation in the semi-finals back in 1998.
By Keir Radnedge, AIPS