Englands World Cup dream dashed as Croatia win semi-final in extra time

Croatia have crushed Englands World Cup dream with a 2-1 extra-time victory in their semi-final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow

It was like watching a beautiful paint being rent up in front of your eyes. England’s dream of stimulating it to their first World Cup final for more than half a century was over and in the desperate moments after the final whistle, as the lose players wandered aimlessly around the pitching, nearly zombie-like in their desolation, it was impossible not to wonder whether that will be a lifetime regret.

Those players will look back eventually on a tournament that has shifted England’s reputation for leaden football and tournament neuroticism. All the same, it may take some time to shake off the ordeal of losing this semifinal, the knowledge that the World Cup may never open up so obligingly again and the additional trauma from the fact that, for a long while, Gareth Southgate’s team had led us to believe they could do it. They actually did.

Instead, it will be Croatia who return to the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday to face France and, in the midst of the England inquest, it would be hugely unfair on Zlatko Dalic’s team not to recognise the competitive fortitude that helped them recover from a objective down. The decisive moment came in the 109 th minute from a striker, Mario Mandzukic, with a poorly damaged knee and that itself summed up Croatia. They have won all three of their knockout games in extra hour and, providing they are not on the point of exhaustion, it is still plausible the Football world cup “il be going” to a country with a population of only four million.

For England, it is the third v fourth sideshow against Belgium on Saturday and, much like Bobby Robson’s beaten semi-finalists of 1990, they will urgently wish they were not there. The honour of football immortality will go to another team. Moscow 2018 can be filed with Turin 1990, and their grief was epitomised by Kieran Trippier’s tears as he was helped off in the final exchanges. Trippier had opened the scoring for England with a peach of a free-kick but his injury came as Mandzukic’s winner and the emotion poured out of him. He knew it was over.

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At the very least, Southgate and his players have helped redefine the route the England team are perceived around the world. New heroes have emerged, with a new respect and a new outlook. To ensure the England fans serenading the team, decorating this vast stadium with their flags and holding the players in such esteem, attained it feel a trick of the imagination that the mood was close to revolt not even a year ago.

This England feelings different: a band of brethren, comfortable in their own skin with a new spirit of togetherness. This England bend it like Trippier. This England have a guy at the back who attains it his business, in Southgate’s words, to” get his bonce on everything” in either penalty area. This England can make their supporters proud again, for the first time in a long time.

Ultimately, though, we were reminded that Southgate was being deadly serious where reference is alerted us his squad were far from perfect and it must have been startling for their manager to see the style his players relinquished their control from the midway stage of the second half.

Until that phase, they had played with a conviction that made this feel like it could be the greatest achievement yet for a post-1 966 squad. Again, it felt like we were watching the obliging evidence that John Stones had become the central defender English football always wanted him to be. Dele Alli kept to his promise of playing better than he had against Sweden. Harry Maguire had been outstanding . Jordan Henderson was keeping midfield safe. England looked firmly in control.

Harry
Harry Kane wasn’t able to convert a key opportunity for England when they were 1-0 up in the first half. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/ Reuters

Yet they could not add a second objective when they were on top and the game swing in Croatia’s favour once Ivan Perisic had scored an improvisational equaliser in the 68 th minute, depicting great determination to beat Trippier and Kyle Walker to a cross from the right and twisting mid-air to turn an awkward volley, virtually head-height, past Jordan Pickford.

England still managed to toy with our emotions, as they often do, and it needed a goal-line clearance to avoid Stones heading in a corner in the first period of extra day. By that point, however, it was the first time in the entire tournament when England have repeatedly looked vulnerable at the back. Even before the additional 30 minutes, Perisic struck the post with a low, diagonal shooting and Ante Rebic should have done better with the rebound. It was not an onslaught, but it was not far off. Croatia had enough of the ball in dangerous areas to think they might have completed the recovery before the end of normal time.

All of which was tremendously disappointing from an English view bearing in mind the story of the first half, the energy they put into appeasing the influence of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic and the euphoria, only five minutes in, when Trippier directed a free-kick over a six-man defensive wall, applying only the right combination of curl and dip for the ball to beat Danijel Subasic and arc beneath the crossbar. As devastated as Trippier was, he will return to England as one of the authentic starrings of this tournament.

Unfortunately for England, Southgate acknowledged their inexperience had an opportunity to counted against them during that inevitable period in the second half when Croatia perpetrated more men forward in their search for an equaliser.

Too often, an England player would rush or miscue a clearance. “Game management,” the coaches call it- and England lacked it. The shape of the team was beginning to unravel and, though Harry Kane will almost certainly win the Golden Boot, the contradiction is that he has found it difficult to get behind opponent defences.

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Fan in Zagreb celebrate Ivan Perisic’s aim for Croatia against England- video

Raheem Sterling was replaced after a so-so performance and Jesse Lingard will not easily forget the first-half chance he put wide. Kane’s best opportunity was given incorrectly as offside and, though it is difficult sometimes to second-guess VAR, maybe it would have stood if he could have put the ball in from close range rather than reaching the post. Hypothetical now: England will never know.

Instead it was Mandzukic with the murderer moment, leaving Southgate to talk about the” hardened warriors” in the Croatia team. Stone lost concentration for a split-second and the striker rifled in a left-foot shot.

Was there still time for England to save themselves? Could they rouse themselves one last hour? Yes and no. The momentum had swayed and England’s players will never forget the night they had the lead in a Football world cup semi-final and blew it.

” We all feel the pain ,” Southgate told. Football’s not coming home, after all.

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