England’s World Cup dream is over after a 2-1 semi-final loss to Croatia saw Gareth Southgate’s brave Three Lions eliminated from the tournament.
Kieran Trippier’s brilliant free-kick was the perfect tonic for a good England start, but as the game progressed, Croatia grew with confidence.
A goal from Ivan Perisic levelled the scores midway through the second half and with just 12 minutes of extra-time left, Mario Mandzukic pounced on a defensive mistake to punch Croatia’s ticket to Sunday’s final.
Confidence was high amongst the England fans heading into the game, but the players were not looking further than the semi-final stage with a tricky opponent standing in their way. Croatia held within their ranks a wealth of high-quality experience, but this was uncharted waters for both teams as France awaited in the final.
The confidence amongst the England fans would have rose higher when Trippier gave them the perfect start. Dele Alli was hauled down on the edge of the box by the talismanic Luka Modric and the Tottenham Hotspur full-back provided yet another pinpoint delivery from the set-piece. The ball flew over a rather large Croatian wall and ducked back down just in time to ripple the top corner, sparking wild scenes across many fan parks in England.
Up the other end, England knew they would have to defend well against a dangerous attack, but across the 120 minutes, they failed to do so. Perisic was given too much space to take a shot from range and a slight deflection off of Kyle Walker’s heel had Jordan Pickford scrambling, but the ball flew wide of the far post.
With thirty minutes on the clock, England should have doubled their lead. A nice pass from Jesse Lingard had Harry Kane in a prime position, but his placed shot was well saved by Danijel Subasic. The rebound fell nicely for the England captain too, but he hit the post from a tight angle. In truth, Kane should have squared for Raheem Sterling who would have undoubtedly scored, but the Tottenham man had his sights set on the Golden Boot.
Another chance fell England’s way just before half-time. Alli spread it across for Lingard to strike from the edge of the box, but the Manchester United man couldn’t match his heroics against Panama as he shot well wide. It was from a great position and the second half proved it was about taking your chances when you are on top.
Croatia’s experience came out after half-time and a controversial goal had them level in the 69th minute. A great cross from Sime Vrsaljko on the right had England worried and Perisic beat the unaware Kyle Walker to the ball with a jabbed shot into the bottom corner. It was quite a high foot, but with Walker stooping, it was easy to see why the referee allowed the goal to count.
The goal had England rocked and Croatia should have scored again three minutes later. Some sloppy defending from John Stones allowed the ball to break for Perisic but the winger was unlucky to see his powerful low strike thump back off the far post with Pickford beaten. Southgate’s team were holding on, but managed to scrape through to extra-time where they had one big chance to win the tie.
Unsurprisingly, it was from a set-piece that England threatened. Trippier’s delivery was met by Stones’ rising header, but a great example of defending from Vrsaljko hooked the ball off the line to deny the Manchester City defender.
For the first time in years, England’s best chance of progressing to the final looked to be a penalty shoot-out but heartbreak was waiting before the game got there. Once again, sloppy defending created the chance as Mandzukic latched onto a loose ball ahead of a stuttering Stones and fled the ball into the bottom corner. It was a goal of deflation for England, but the jubilant scenes from the Croatian players showed how far they have come as a footballing nation over the last few years.
The final part of their journey comes on Sunday against the French, but England players will be watching on with envy with a number of what-ifs running through their heads.