Croatia set up a dream final with France as they came from a goal down to beat England 2-1 in a nail-biting semifinal at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow yesterday.
Mario Mandzukic struck the winner in the 109th minute after the game headed into extra time following a 1-1 stalemate in regulation 90 minutes. England defender Kieran Trippier gave the Three Lions a fifth-minute lead with a spectacular free-kick before Ivan Perisic levelled the margin in the 68th minute with a first-time flick into the left-hand corner of the net.
And the moment Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir blew the final whistle after four minutes of added time, the Croatian players burst into wild celebration for having made it into the final for the first time in their history, leaving England to eat the humble pie 28 years after that gut-wrenching defeat against Germany in Italia '90.
Despite the defeat, this young England team showed they can play entertaining, fearless and not conventional football. Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Jasse Lingard, John Stones and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, whose brilliance under the bar ended the Three Lions' shootout jinx in the round or 16 against Colombia, were really pushing a seasoned Croatian side into tight corners.
And England needed only five minutes to take the lead through a magnificent free-kick from Trippier, who whipped the ball over the wall and into the top right-hand corner that Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic could only watch. England got the free-kick just outside the box when Luka Modric pulled Alli, who looked ominously poised after being nicely fed by Lingard. It was the Tottenham Hotspur winger's first goal on England shirt.
The early goal fuelled more energy into the England attack, with Sterling making those sprints down the right flank. They won a corner in the 14th minute and it was time for another defender to bury it for a team that had proved to be the most successful side from dead-ball situations in this World Cup. But Harry Maguire headed the ball wide off the mark.
The pace of England attack created all sorts of problems for Croatia's defence and a terrible mispass from Domagoj Vida, who was jeered by his the fans whenever he touched the ball, almost allowed Sterling to score another. But the Manchester City forward killed that opportunity by trying to feed it to Harry Kane, who was offside.
Kane, the Tottenham Hotspur forward and the leading scorer in the World Cup with six goals, had his share of chances in the 30th minute. But his shots were amazingly saved by Subasic. After being nicely set up by Lingard, Kane drove a low sided-footed shot that Subasic partially parried and Kane's second attempt off the rebound from a tight angle hit the post before the ball somehow bounced away after hitting the goalkeeper.
Having survived the early onslaught, Modric finally showed up in the final third as he sent through an overlapping Rebic, who sent a rising shot towards the top left post. But that only allowed Pickford to warm his hands for the first time in the evening.
But the post-lemon session offered a completely different picture, with the Croats coming firing in all cylinders. And it turned into anybody's game after Perisic restored parity in the 68th minute.
It was a reward for constant pressure. Vrsaljko curled in the ball towards the far post that Perisic buried with a first-time flick. Four minutes later, Perisic almost got his second goal but his low shot past Pickford came off the far post. Rebic's shot on the rebound came straight at the young England goalkeeper.
England got a golden opportunity to take the decisive lead in the ninth minute of extra time, but Stone's goal bound header was cleared off the line by Vrsalijko. Few minutes later Pickford made an equally brilliant save at the other end off a Mandzukic shot on a Perisic cross from the right.
But the experienced Juventus striker made no mistake to pounce on a loose ball three minutes into the second half of extra-time. After England failed to clear a high ball down the left, Perisic beat Trippier to a header to the left of the box. Mandzukic was first to get the dropping ball and fired an unstoppable left-footer into the bottom right. And that meant dreamland for Croatia.
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