The last semi-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup saw Croatia overcome England in extra time to book their place in the final. The Croatians dug deep and Mario Mandžukić scored the game-winning goal that downed England and send Croatian fans into happy delirium.
England control the first 45 minutes but only get one goal
England got the start any team would want in the semi-final of a major tournament. After using their pace and movement up front to trouble the Croatian backline, Kieran Trippier stepped up in the fifth minute to take a direct free-kick after Luka Modrić fouled Dele Alli near the top of the penalty area. The England wing-back took a few steps forward before bending in an outstanding set piece to give England the lead. The same movement and pace that had led to the opener continued to test Croatia and for the entirety of the first half, they could not keep up with Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
England should have been two or three goals up as they threatened Croatia's goal time and time again. Kane had a guilt-edged opportunity in the 30th minute when Jesse Lingard slipped him through on goal and after goalkeeper Danijel Subašić had saved his initial shot, Kane then proceeded to watch as his rebound hit the post, Subašić and a Croatian defender before bouncing clear of goal. No one can fault Kane for going for goal instead of squaring the ball to Sterling who was wide open in front of a gaping goal but once Kane decided to keep the ball, he should have scored from that range. That, and other missed opportunities would come back to haunt England as they failed to put the game to bed in the first half.
Croatia find their groove, take over the game
The half-time break could not have come at a better time for Croatia who seemed a little shell-shocked in the first half, It allowed them to regroup and they began to dominate proceedings, despite having gone through extra time and penalties in their previous two games. England lost their composure and thus their grip on the midfield, which allowed the likes of Modrić and Ivan Rakitić to find space and then proceed to pick out their advancing fullbacks out wide. Those passes out wide to the fullbacks ended up creating Croatia's equalizer in the 68th minute. Šime Vrsaljko sent in a tantalizing cross and Ivan Perišić beat Kyle Walker to the ball, finishing low past Jordan Pickford.
After that goal, Croatia seemed to gain even more confidence and began to pen England further into their own half. The movement that had seen the likes of Sterling, Kane, Dele Alli and Lingard toy with the Croatian backline disappeared and England began to seemingly fade away. Perišić almost got a second in the 72nd minute when he burst forward and fired across Pickford but his effort came off the post and Ante Rebić could only put the rebound into Pickford's hands.
Mandžukić sends Croatia into the World Cup final
Extra time came and many thought that having played so many minutes beforehand, Croatia would be the team to become visibly exhausted but it was England that could not cope in the moment. That's not to say the game went completely Croatia's way and they had Vrsaljko to thank in the 99th minute when his goal line clearance stopped John Stones from adding to his two goal tally in the tournament. As the first half of extra time went into stoppage time, Mandžukić thought he had scored when he latched onto Perišić's cross but Pickford came out bravely and blocked the shot, sending the ball over his crossbar and away from danger.
Pickford had some choice words for Mandžukić after that attempt but it was the Croatian who had the last laugh. Four minutes into the second half of extra time, the English defense collapsed and Mandžukić took advantage of it. Kyle Walker spooned his attempted kick into the air to prevent the ball from reaching the advancing Mandžukić but Perišić won the ball in the air and Mandžukić pounced on the loose ball, tucking it neatly away for the game-winner. England had been valiant in their efforts considering not many had been impressed with the team before the tournament but in the end, Croatia's quality told and they have taken one step closer to the World Cup title.