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England’s World Cup dream dashed as Croatia win semi-final in extra-time England’s World Cup dream dashed as Croatia win semi-final in extra-time
(35 minutes later)
Croatia have crushed England’s 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 painting being ripped up in front of your eyes. England’s dream of making it to their first World Cup final for more than a quarter of a century was over and in those desolate moments after the final whistle, as the losing players wandered aimlessly around the pitch, almost zombie-like in their trance, it was impossible not to wonder whether there will be a lifetime of regret.
England made a dream start with Kieran Trippier’s fifth-minute free-kick securing a 1-0 lead. But Croatia came out stronger in the second half and Ivan Perisic levelled in the 67th minute. Those players will look back eventually on a tournament that has helped to shift England’s reputation for leaden football and tournament neurosis. All the same, it might some take time to get over the ordeal of surrendering an early lead to see everything unravel in the second half and, finally, extra time. England had fallen short and, at this stage of the competition, the disappointment will be tremendous when the World Cup had opened up with so many possibilities.
The teams traded blows for the rest of the 90 minutes but were forced into extra time locked at 1-1. After a tense first period Mario Mandzukic then broke England hearts in the 109th minute. Instead, it will be Croatia who return to the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday to face France in the final and, on this evidence, they might yet have the competitive courage to complete their own dreams. The decisive moment here came in the 109th minute from a striker, Mario Mandzukic, who was carrying an injury and that in itself summed up the immense personality of this team. England will go into a third-versus-fourth sideshow against Belgium the previous day and, just like 1990, they would desperately wish they were not there.
Croatia’s opponents in Moscow on Sunday will be France, who progressed to the final with a 1-0 win against Belgium in their semi-final at the St Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday. At the very least, Gareth Southgate and his players have helped to redefine the way the England team is perceived around the world. New heroes have emerged, with a new respect and a new outlook. To see the England fans serenading the team, decorating this vast stadium with their St George’s flags and holding the players in such esteem, made it feel a trick of the imagination that the same team was straying dangerously close to a full‑on mutiny not even a year ago. Moscow 2018 certainly felt a long way from Malta, 2017, with its mass walkout and protest songs and theme of unpleasantness. Was that really only 10 months ago?
Gareth Southgate kept faith with the same side which has taken England to the semi-finals, naming an unchanged starting XI. This England feels different: a band of brothers, so assured and comfortable in their own skin. This England bends it like Kieran Trippier. This England still has a big guy at the back who makes it his business, in Southgate’s words, to “get his bonce on everything” in either penalty area, But the new-look England, in their now-familiar 3-3-2-2 system, does many things well and is growing in confidence in front of our eyes.
Three minutes had gone when England won a free-kick 25 yards from goal. Kyle Walker’s long ball pushed England upfield, with Jesse Lingard’s quick feet helping to free Dele Alli, who was bundled over by Luka Modric. You want an example? Just consider the moment, early on, when Dele Alli nudged the ball one side of Dejan Lovren then slipped around him the other way to reach it first. Again, we saw the hard evidence that John Stones is now the central defender English football always wanted him to be at least until Mandzukic’s extra-time strike. Alli kept to his promise of playing better than he had against Sweden. Harry Maguire was outstanding. Jordan Henderson produced another high-calibre performance, as he has throughout this tournament, and collectively England worked so hard trying to quell the influence of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
Trippier stood over the ball and bent his delivery beyond the wall and into the net. It was his first goal for England, and the team’s ninth from a set piece in the tournament. As for Trippier, presumably he will be made an honorary citizen of Ramsbottom when he returns as one of the authentic stars of the tournament. Trippier chose a good night to score his first England goal and it was a peach of a free-kick, even if Danijel Subasic, Croatia’s goalkeeper, seemed to get his bearings wrong.
England attempted to scramble a quick second, Raheem Sterling haring after balls over the top three times in the next five minutes each time narrowly failing to go clear. Croatia had six players in their defensive wall after the foul, 20 yards out, from Modric on Alli. Trippier aimed it over two of the biggest men, Lovren and Mandzucic, and applied just the right blend of curl and dip for the ball to arc beneath the crossbar. Trippier’s victory run took him to the touchline, pursued by his teammates, and if there was any tension in the England camp the goal came early enough to soothe their nerves.
Having successfully defended a corner England got their first in the 12th minute, Ashley Young delivering from the left. Harry Maguire, who scored from a similar position against Sweden in England’s previous match, met it first but headed over. The Leicester defender was on the end of the next one too, Trippier winning and delivering from the right but his downward header was wide. They might also reflect they should have been further ahead by half‑time if Harry Kane, set up by Jesse Lingard, had been able to beat Subasic from close range. The linesman’s offside flag was a mistake and, though it is difficult to know sometimes with VAR, there has to be a reasonable chance the goal would have been given had it not been for Subasic flicking out a boot to divert Kane’s follow-up effort against the post.
Modric began to push Croatia on with some finessed passing but Kyle Walker snuffed out a half-chance for Mario Mandzukic with a neat interception. Croatia’s players left the pitch at half-time arguing that Maguire should have been penalised for some penalty-box grappling. There was no way Zlatko Dalic’s team would go out without putting up some form of resistance and it was inevitable they would start committing more men forward in the second half.
With 20 minutes gone Ante Rebic cut inside from the right wing, skipped past Young’s tackle and shaped to shoot from 20 yards but John Stones blocked. It was not until the hour, however, that England were subjected to the first concerted spell of pressure. Kyle Walker blocked one shot with the part of his body where no man wants to be struck. But England were starting to look vulnerable for the first time and Southgate must have desperately wished Lingard and Raheem Sterling could have taken one of the opportunities that came their way earlier in the match.
Croatia almost gave England a gift of a second when Danijel Subasic chipped a pass to Ivan Stranic, who took a nonchalant first touch straight to Sterling. The forward took a few steps towards goal before looking for Kane, who took the pass in an offside position before slotting wide. Midway through the second half, the right-back Sime Vrsaljko sent over a deep cross from the right. For once, it eluded Maguire and Ivan Perisic showed great commitment to get there ahead of Trippier and Walker. Perisic had to improvise, twisting his body mid-air and jabbing out his left boot, sideways on, to turn the ball past Jordan Pickford with a clever volley.
Sterling’s pace continued to worry Croatia, Lovren knocking him to the ground after losing the race for Alli’s pass down the line. Young floated the free-kick into the box but Subasic punch clear. After that, it must have been startling for Southgate to see the way the game turned in Croatia’s favour. Soon afterwards, Perisic struck the post with a low, diagonal shot and Ante Rebic ought to have done better with the rebound. It was not an onslaught, but it was not far off and Croatia must have felt they had enough of the ball in dangerous areas to complete the recovery before the end of normal time. Yet Stones saw a goalbound header cleared off the line in extra time before the killer moment when he lost Mandzucic and the forward struck the decisive blow.
After 30 minutes England came close to picking the defence apart again. Lingard’s clever pass found Kane, who opened his body and shot low at Subasic. The goalkeeper saved and Kane tried to squeeze the rebound inside the post but Subasic pawed away the ball. A late flag appeared.
England were then pinned back for a couple of minutes, Modric finding men in space.
With 10 minutes to go before the break, Lingard spurned a fine chance. Kane, dropping deep into a No 10 role, released Alli who rolled the ball across the box. Lingard was unmarked and curled wide from 18 yards.
With seconds to go until half-time England put themselves under pressure. Miscommunication between the back three resulted in Jordan Pickford clearing under pressure. He could only find a Croatian shirt and when the ball was fed back for Perisic to shoot. England rallied to clear the ball and they went half-time leading 1-0.
Rebic was booked early in the second half for leading with his elbow when challenging Walker in the air.
England fashioned another decent chance when Trippier’s volleyed cross found Kane, who stooped to head it goalwards and Lovren defended.
The game opened up with the ball travelling end to end. A Henderson pass allowed Sterling to sneak in on the right-hand channel and charge towards the six-yard box. After checking his run and transferring his weight he went down as Domagoj Vida flung a boot in his direction but the referee Cuneyt Cakir waved play on.
Croatia were building pressure and they levelled in the 67th minute. Vrsaljko hung a cross in from the right and Perisic volleyed, leaving Pickford groping at air and England complaining without success about high feet.
England were rattled and almost coughed up a second a few minutes later. A bouncing ball was mis-read by all three defenders and Perisic took advantage, pulling left and slamming a low shot against the far post. Rebic attempted to turn home the rebound but Pickford gathered.
England sent on Marcus Rashford for Sterling and announced himself with a dribble into the area, opening up a shooting chance for Henderson but the Liverpool captain was wide.
England again looked like buckling at the back when Walker and Trippier failed to deal with a sweep-up, the latter’s back pass falling short. Pickford again had to clear under pressure.
With seven minutes of normal time left Mandzukic chested the ball down eight yards from goal, striking with a swivel but straight at Pickford.
Rashford won a free-kick as the game ticked into added time, with Trippier standing over it. His delivery was sweet and reached Kane at the far post, but the England captain nodded a couple of yards wide and the teams were forced into extra time locked at 1-1.
England made one more change for extra-time, replacing Young with Danny Rose, while Eric Dier came on as a more naturally defensive option.
A corner provided England with their best chance of retaking the lead. Trippier whipped it in from the right, Stones rose highest but Vrsaljko made a firm defensive header on the line.
Croatia swapped an exhausted Rebic for Kramaric. They were still looking the fitter of the two sides, with Rashford and Rose England’s only fresh outlets.
A low cross from Perisic towards Mandzukic caused a mini-drama in the England box, but Pickford did enough to force a corner just before the interval in extra-time. Modric took it short and tried to find a gap to attack but ended up heaving his cross out of play just before the referee’s whistle.
Croatia forced an early corner after the break, catching England with a quick routine. Marcelo Brozovic sauntered into the box and met the ball with a shot that blazed over the crossbar.
England then slipped behind for the first time in the match. Perisic beat Trippier to a loose ball, flicking a backwards header into the box. Mandzukic was onside, stealing a march on the defenders and rifling low past Pickford.
Daniel Taylor’s match report from the Luzhniki Stadium will follow.
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