Mario Mandžukić broke the hearts of a nation as his extra-time winner in Moscow sent Croatia into the 2018 FIFA World Cup final at the expense of England.
England had had the perfect start to their third-ever World Cup semi-final when Kieran Trippier’s free-kick gave them a fifth-minute lead, but they missed chances to double their lead.
Croatia had them rattled in the second half and then Ivan Perišić equalised to send the game into extra-time.
England kept battling but soon after the turnaround, England’s defence fell asleep and Mandžukić fired in the winning goal to secure a final against France on Sunday.
Trippier’s free-kick gives England lift off
Croatia had needed two penalty shootouts to make it to a second World Cup semi-final, beating Denmark and hosts Russia. Šime Vrsaljko was fit to play despite a knee problem, with the only change seeing Marcelo Brozović returning at the expense of Andrej Kramarić. England had beaten Colombia on penalties but followed that up with a comfortable 2-0 win over Sweden, sending expectations back home into fever pitch. Gareth Southgate picked the same team as in both of those previous matches.
The opening moments were cagey, but when Jesse Lingard passed to Dele Alli, who was fouled by Luka Modrić, England had an early chance to add yet another set-piece goal to give them a perfect start. It was Trippier who took the free-kick, in line with the centre of the goal, and he placed it perfectly, curling it towards the top corner to give Danijel Subašić no chance, with shades of David Beckham. Like Harry Maguire against Sweden, he had scored his first international goal when it mattered most.
England were dangerous from corners again as well, with the first two both finding Maguire, but he couldn’t direct either on goal with his head. Harry Kane also hit the ball wide after Alli capitalised on a mistake by Ivan Strinić – the England captain had been offside though. At the back they did well to hold off the threat of Croatia, with Perišić twice restoring to long-range efforts that both went wide of Jordan Pickford’s goal.
Croatia remained a threat, with Ante Rebić having back-to-back shots dealt with by John Stones and Pickford, but England were clearly on top. Kane, leading the way in the Golden Boot race, should made it two but he couldn’t get his shot in the block through Subašić. His follow-up from a tight angle hit the post and the Croatian goalkeeper, across goal and out of play. More crisp passing also gave a chance to Lingard, but he also struck wide.
There was the odd sign of nerves, with one or two nervy back passes to Pickford. Only once was he hurried though, with a clearance to a Croatian player, although England dealt with the danger. There was a quick VAR check on the half-time whistle when Dejan Lovren went down, seemingly under pressure from Maguire on a free-kick, but nothing was given. They made it to half-time though with few other scares. It almost seemed too serene.
Perišić brings Croatia back into the game
Croatia saw plenty of the ball early in the second half, but they were still struggling to create a meaningful chance, with England clearing anything that came into the box, including a cross from Perišić that was cleared by Trippier, with Ivan Rakitić then booting it into the stands. Kane almost had another chance as he tried to get on the end of a superb Trippier cross, but Lovren got his feet in the way to clear.
England might have had a penalty when Domagoj Vida got a piece of Raheem Sterling in the box, but nothing was given. Meanwhile Croatia were looking increasingly dangerous. A Modrić cross was headed clear by Stones, with Kyle Walker bravely blocking Perišić’s follow-up. Soon after though, a great cross from Vrsaljko found Perišić, who got past Tripper and jumped above Walker to volley in the equaliser.
It almost got worse for England as they looked on the wobble after the goal. After some messy defending Perišić, in space, struck into the post, with Pickford at least claiming the rebound effort from Rebić. Meanwhile after a corner was initially cleared, Brozović fired over, but the momentum of the game had clearly turned as England struggled to hold back the Croatian surge.
Southgate had responded by bringing on Marcus Rashford, and he looks bright on the ball, but it wasn’t enough to stem the tide. An excellent ball from Brozović gave Mandžukić his first sight of goal in the game, but Pickford claimed the shot. He was nearly caught out by Perišić though as he punched his header straight back to him. Perišić hit on the volley, but the shot didn’t dip under the bar.
England had one chance in stoppage time to settle the game in 90 minutes. Rashford won a free-kick, and Trippier could whip the ball in from the right. He found Kane, but he directed his header wide. Extra time was required.
Mandžukić becomes England’s bogeyman in extra time
England had looked dead on the feet, but the fresh feet of Danny Rose and Eric Dier helped them to push on again in the first half of extra time. The later won a corner that, when taken by Trippier, found the head of Stones. His attempt looked like it was going in, but Vrsaljko headed it off the line.
A Modrić free-kick caused a few problems for England, but in stoppage time at the end of the first 15 minutes, substitute Kramarić had a shot blocked, before a cross from Perišić looked to have found Mandžukić, but Pickford did brilliantly to get his leg to ball the ball to deny him the chance.
It all went wrong early in the second period. An attempt by Walker to clear a cross went awry, and a header from Perišić put the ball back into the danger zone. England’s defence was not alert to it and Mandžukić came in to hit the ball through the legs of Pickford to put his country on the verge of an historic first World Cup final.
England didn’t have it in them to give themselves a chance from the spot. They were forced down to ten men after Trippier’s body caved in on him, with all four subs used, whilst Pickford just about held on to a Kramarić. Like in normal time, England had once last chance with a Rashford free-kick, but it wasn’t to be.
For Croatia though, a country that less than 30 years ago was fighting for its right to exist, this team have gone one better than 1998 by reaching the final. The team that ended that run 20 years ago, France, await them back in the Luzhniki Stadium.
England have one more commitment to fulfil, the third-place play-off against Belgium. A win in Saint Petersburg would at least give England their best finish since 1966. And after the way that Southgate’s men have performed in this tournament and reconnected with the country, they deserve to finish on a high.