Croatia are through to their first World Cup final after defeating England 2-1 on Wednesday.
England took the lead as early as the fifth minute and were the better team in the first 45 minutes; but Croatia gradually wrested control from the English and scored a deserved equaliser through Ivan Perisic in the second half.
No more goal in normal time saw the game go into extra time and that is when Mario Mandzukic pounced to send his country into a first-ever FIFA World Cup final.
But for England, it was another nearly moment and their wait for another victory after 1966 continues to Qatar 2022, if they make it. On Sunday, it will be Croatia against France for the champion of the world.
In all white, England kicked off at the Luzhniki Stadium with 10,000 roaring Englishmen bellowing ‘it is coming home’. And the first action of note was the first goal. A punt upfield followed by a cute control and pass from Jesse Lingard released Dele Alli. Croatia captain Luka Modric had to trip the Tottenham midfielder on the edge of the box, and referee Cuneyt Cakir rightly awarded a free kick.
Up stepped Kieran Trippier to deliver a David Beckham-like gem into Croatia’s right hand post to give England a fifth minute lead. Harry Maguire got his head on a corner in the 15th minute from Trippier but it went wide – goal-scoring chance again for England from a set piece.
Ivan Perisic had Croatia’s first attempt on goal in the 20th minute as the Vatreni tried to rally as Modric and Ivan Rakitic had been really subdued. Ante Rebic had a go a minute later but his effort was well blocked by John Stones.
Raheem Sterling won a foot race against Dejan Lovren on 27 minutes and drew a foul out of the Liverpool defender. Harry Kane should have doubled England’s lead on 30 minutes; but after Lingard played him in, he failed to beat Danijel Subasic at the first time of asking and was flagged offside on his second attempt.
A toenail from Ashley Young saved England from a Rebic blast. Maguire legally won the ball off Rebic who then chased down and fouled Young. The referee was still keeping his cards in his pocket despite English protestations.
Croatia started with more possession trying to make inroads into the England backline. Mario Madzukic was shown the first yellow card of the match three minutes into the second stanza.
The match was being played at a slow pace, which favoured the Croats, who had played 240 minutes of knock-out football, qualifying for the semifinal. The referee waved play on when Kane clashed with Sime Vrsaljko and Domagoj Vida as the game turned a bit scrappy.
Trippier volleyed a cross into the Croatia box, looking for Kane, who despite a valiant effort could not get on the ball. A good move between Kane and sterling saw Lingard blast a volley, via a deflection for a corner. More touches for the Croats in the English half as the Three Lions sat more in defence, and played on the counter.
Rakitic flashed a volley wide on the hour. England were always looking to play the ball behind the Croatian defence. Sterling went to ground in the 63rd minute but he was quickly up to continue play. There was bedlam in the English box in the 64th minute with Kyle Walker needing treatment for taking a ball to the nether regions. Kane hit the side netting on 67 minutes as the match went into a lull.
Perisic then got the equaliser – out of the blues as he got ahead of the recently treated Walker, who was waiting to head away from the danger but Perisic stuck in a boot to grab an important equaliser with 22 minutes left on the clock.
Perisic hit the post after calamitous defending from England and Rebic sent the rebound into a grateful Jordan Pickford’s arms. Suddenly, the Croats had lift-off, pressing England back and smashing shots at the England goal.
Sterling went off to be replaced by Marcus Rashford on 73 minutes as Gareth Southgate tried to add offensive pep to his offense.
There were two consecutive goal-scoring chances for Croatia. Mandzukic stole into the England box but shot straight at Pickford and then the England goalkeeper punched to Perisic’ foot but he lifted the chance over the bar in the 83rd minute.
England looked leggy at this stage, looking like the team that had played the two extra times. Kane almost found Lingard with a pass into the Croatia box with four minutes left on the clock. England had a free-kick in the first minute of three added minutes but Kane’s header was off target.
Tired limbs and substitutions as Southgate sent on Danny Rose for Ashley Young in the first minute of extra time and Henderson went off for Eric Dier. Ivan Strinic tweaked his left leg and had to go off for Josip Pivaric.
Andrej Kramaric came on for Rebic. The first goal scoring chance, however, came in the ninth minute for England – and it was again from a corner. Stones got his head on the ball but Vrsaltjko was well positioned on the line to clear.
On the cusp of half-time, Perisic bent a cross into the box for Mandzukic, who got on the ball; but Pickford heroically blocked his goal-bound shot.
Mandzukic got the goal when another lax period from the England defence meant he could pounce and shoot past Pickford with 11 minutes left of the encounter. Southgate withdrew Walker and sent on Jaime Vardy. Zlatko Dalic replaced Mandzukic with a defender, Vedran Corluka. Trippier hobbled off which meant England finished with 10 men.
Modric departed to rapturous applause in the 118th minute, replaced by Milan Badelj. Croatia held on to celebrate a first ever final appearance.