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.
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.
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