Rewind four weeks to the start of this summer’s World Cup, and you’d have been given extraordinary odds on a Croatia vs England semi-final.
On the one hand, you’ve got a nation of just over four million inhabitants, whose best ever World Cup finish was fourth in 1998, and has not been beyond the group stages since.
And on the other, you’ve got the home of football – a country whose fans have become disillusioned with their national side over recent years with one poor tournament after another, having not registered a win in an international knockout game since 2006.
It’s funny how football works, isn’t it? But one of these two teams was destined for either their maiden, or second, World Cup final appearance.
All it would take, is ninety minutes.
Or would it?
Heartbreak for England as Croatia claim extra-time semi-final victory
England fans were left heartbroken as Croatia worked their way to the World Cup final with a 2-1 victory that took extra time.
Gareth Southgate’s side took an early lead through Kieran Trippier, but this was cancelled out by goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic.
For England, it was like watching a project you have been working on for years ripped up in front of your eyes. The dream of a nation to make it to their first World Cup final for more than half a century was over in what seemed the blink of an eye, and the heroic players trotted around the pitch in zombie-like fashion, with little emotion on their face.
It was a tough emotion to ponder for England players and fans. On the one hand, mass heroism was to be expected – the young but exciting lions flew to Russia with no expectation, yet they exceeded this by far – but one cannot help to feel that this will be a lifetime regret.
The likes of Maguire, Stones, Pickford and more all had doubters at club level. They had raw talent but did they have what it takes to form part of a youthful spine of Southgate’s Three Lions? Yes they did. The boys that got on the plane almost five weeks ago, return to England as men.
However, it wasn’t meant to be. A valiant Croatia side, led by 1998 star Zlatko Dalic, defied the odds to make it to the World Cup final for the first time in their history, overturning an early England lead.
The English media talked the talk in the days leading up to the game. Croatia were tired after two previous victories on penalties. England were the favourites according to the papers, with them already talking about the final with France or Belgium.
For the first half, this was showing. England started with energy and came out of the blocks faster than ever before in Russia 2018. Croatia players were mere shadows to the England attacking quartet of Kane, Sterling, Alli and Lingard.
Dele Alli wriggled into some space early on and was fouled by Luka Modric on the edge of the box. Set piece England. Set piece for the nation that has earned its worth from these kinds of situations in this World Cup. Set piece for Kieran Trippier, dubbed the ‘Bury Beckham’ by many commentators.
Trippier stepped up and proved exactly why he has earned said nickname. He bent it round and over the wall into the top corner, sending the entire nation into euphoria.
“Kieran Trippier’s first goal for England is in a World Cup semi-final inside five minutes; dreams do come true”, said ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley, but those dreams were far from a reality just yet.
Did England have it in them to see out a 1-0 for 85 minutes? Against a team led by Modric, Mandzukic, Rakitic – players who have won it all at club level – could an inexperienced defence of John Stones, Harry Maguire and a full back Kyle Walker, defend a one goal lead?
The world was about to find out, but Southgate’s charges were keen to build on their early momentum and really solidify their position in the game.
And not long later, England held its breath, as Harry Kane was found where Harry Kane is at his clinical best – completely unmarked, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, and in the penalty area.
A throw from Ashley Young was neatly worked – Kane layed it off for his Spurs teammate Dele Alli, who took his time and picked out Jesse Lingard on the edge of the Croatian D.
The Manchester United man then had time to look up, and pick out his man – exquisitely releasing Kane on the left side of the box, but as England’s six-goal hero opened up his body with the first touch, he couldn’t quite bend the second around goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, and as the AS Monaco shot-stopper spilled the effort, Kane just about kept it in on the byline before hammering it against the post from a tight angle.
England had spurned an absolute golden opportunity for an oh so vital two-goal cushion in their first World Cup semi-final since 1990, but would it come back to haunt them?
Yes. Yes it would.
Despite allegedly being the team that would tire due to their previous extra-time exploits, Croatia grew in confidence and belief in the second half as England began to look devoid of ideas going forward, and with a quarter of the game remaining, Dalic’s men got their just rewards.
Bringing a crossfield ball down on his thigh, fullback Sime Vrsaljko whipped in a dangerous outswinging cross to the edge of the six yard box.
It looked destined to be dealt with by an England defence that had looked resolute all evening, but somehow, almost out of nowhere, popped up Ivan Perisic.
Despite primarily being a winger, the Inter Milan man showed great determination and a real striker’s instinct to get in front of not just Trippier, but Walker too, and flick a boot at the ball to divert it beyond Pickford.
It wasn’t the first time England had been pegged back in this World Cup. Southgate’s men showed their character to respond to that gut-wrenching last minute equaliser against Colombia in the last sixteen, but how would they cope here, against an undoubtedly more seasoned and experienced Croatian team, in the final four?
Things didn’t look great for the Three Lions, as minutes later, the game could have swung in favour of the Croatians completely.
A long ball forward caused all sorts of problems for their backline. A huge mix up resulted in Stones unconvincingly clearing the ball straight to the dangerous Perisic, who managed to find space away from the pacey Walker with a couple of step-overs and unleash a low left-footed shot towards the bottom corner, but plucky England saw it strike the base of the far post, and almost bounce off Ante Rebic and into the hands of Pickford. A lifeline, if England had ever seen one.
Both sides inevitably tired after that and, with the game headed for extra-time, conserved their energy for the frantic thirty minutes that would follow.
Croatia already had two penalty shootout wins under their belt, whereas England also had one to their name – but who would come out on top this time? And would it even make it that far?
Southgate’s side were determined to ensure it wouldn’t. In the first period, Trippier curled an outswinging corner which was powerfully met by the head of Stones – a man who had already got two goals to his name at Russia 2018 – but this time his brilliant effort was even more impressively headed off the line by the backtracking Vrsaljko.
Then it was Croatia’s turn. England’s nemesis for the evening Perisic curled in a stunner of a cross which was met by Mandzukic six yards out after getting between both Stones and Maguire, but Pickford was out in just enough time to block the shot at source and see it fly over for a corner.
It was still anybody’s game, but with four minutes of the second period played, the decisive blow was struck.
Substitute Josip Pivaric’s cross was flicked high into the air by Walker in an attempt to clear the danger, but England found themselves in a mess again as Perisic won the resulting header.
He beat Trippier to the ball and flicked it behind him, and unbeknown to the flat-footed pair of Stones and Maguire, right into the path of the onrushing Mandzukic.
The Juventus marksman did what all top strikers do – gamble. Once again he got between the England centre halves, and this time it proved fatal.
With one lethal swing of the left boot, Mandzukic swept the ball low and hard into the corner past the helpless Pickford, and Croatia had one foot in a first ever final, sparking wild celebrations in Moscow.
England were floored, and had nothing left to give. After a month of heart, fight, bravery and commitment, the dream was over.
As Croatia broke forward from one final English free-kick, Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir put the whistle to his lips and with one last blast, signalled the end of England’s journey. Croatian staff and players alike flooded the Luzhniki pitch in jubilation, Zlatko Dalic simply stood beaming on the touchline with his arms outstretched and aloft, whilst the Three Lions picture was one of stark contrast.
With reality beginning to set in, a chorus of ‘Southgate you’re the one’ could be heard from the travelling English faithful. Despite the hurt, despite the devastation, despite the heartbreak, the Three Lions and their leader had given their nation a summer to remember – memories that will last a lifetime, but with them, a lingering feeling of ‘what if?’
But as for Croatia, little Croatia – they march on to their first ever World Cup final against heavy favourites France and will be back at the Luzhniki on Sunday, as the lowest ranked team to ever reach football’s showpiece event.
Could Russia 2018 have one final twist?
Player of the Day – Ivan Perisic (Croatia)
Following yet another spirited fightback from this dogged side of Croatian heroes, it’s difficult to pinpoint one player exactly who stood out above the rest.
But in a squad that contains a number of highly talented, decorated and experienced footballers in their ranks, some still outshine the rest.
Luka Modric has won all there is to win in the game domestically, but surprisingly the star man against England wasn’t the predictably brilliant figure of Real Madrid’s maestro – who did produce yet another midfield masterclass. It was in fact a long-term target of Premier League clubs, namely Manchester United, in Ivan Perisic.
In a tight game of two halves, it was the 29-year-old whose industrious play, combined with sheer grit and desire, that hauled his nation back into this semi-final.
Typically a big game player at both club and international level, having previously scored goals for Croatia in the 2014 World Cup, Euro 2016 – which included an 87th minute winner to see his side top the group ahead of Spain – and in last November’s qualifying play-off victory against Greece, Perisic stepped up to the plate yet again on the biggest night of his eleven year career.
Everything good about the Croatians offensively against their English opposition came down that left hand side through the forward-thinking Perisic, who provided even more than just his goal – which forced the tie into extra time – and match-winning assist.
As a traditional left-sided midfielder, Perisic was able to exploit the space down England’s right left in the gap between right centre back Kyle Walker, and the wingback Kieran Trippier.
Time and time again in the second half, Perisic got between the lines of the two, and caused England havoc.
After showing his determination to get in front of both men and on the end of Sime Vrsaljko’s cross to fire in the equaliser, he also hit the post minutes later with some brilliant footwork which left Harry Maguire and Trippier helpless, whilst Walker could only lunge in desperation to try and block the attempt following an England mix-up.
The Three Lions survived that occasion, but then in extra-time, the winger – fronted by both Jesse Lingard and Trippier – delivered the perfect pinpoint cross to Mario Mandzukic six yards from goal, but he was foiled by Pickford.
England simply could not live with Perisic. They say you need players who grab the game by the scruff of the neck to be successful, especially in games like this, and that’s exactly what their Man of the Match did.
He and his side got their just rewards late on when the quick-thinking Perisic again capitalised on an English catastrophe, as he flicked a miscued Walker clearance through to Mandzukic, and this time the Juventus striker did not let his prime creator down.
Croatia are into their first ever World Cup final, but go into it as the overwhelming underdogs.
Should this small nation of merely 4 million pull off one of football’s greatest miracles, their star man of the night will have to live up to the hype he’s created through one of the World Cup’s best ever individual displays in a semi-final.