THE DREAM DIES IN MOSCOW
England’s most exciting World Cup campaign in decades came to a heart-breaking end with defeat to Croatia. Gareth Southgate has inspired the nation with his spirited young side.
Gareth Southgate turned no heads in this one, selecting the same XI for the third game in a row. Croatia put Marcelo Brozović in for striker Andrej Kramarić, allowing midfield maestros Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić to push forward. The Real Madrid and Barcelona midfielders were to play more attacking roles here. A place in Sunday’s final beckoned for the winner of this, the second semi-final.
In the Luzhniki Stadium of Moscow, England, in their one-off all-white kit, kicked off. The Croats looks as nervous as can be in the opening moments, with Luka Modrić fouling Dele Alli in a dangerous position. Kieran Trippier was the man trusted in trying to beat a fifteen-man wall and then AS Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subašić. But the Tottenham man, arguably The Three Lions’ best performer in this tournament, scored arguably their best World Cup goal so far, whipping in a delightful freekick that Subašić could only watch, as it nestled in the top corner. England, on five minutes, had the start of dreams in their first World Cup semi-final of the 21st century.
Gareth Southgate’s men kept the pressure on; Croatia looked rattled. A well-worked throw-in for England saw Jesse Lingard put Harry Kane through one-on-one. The Golden Boot frontrunner was the man England fans around the world had wanted the ball to fall to, but his shot was tame, and the goalkeeper made the save. He had ignored a potentially easy goal – Raheem Sterling had been waiting to receive an easy tap-in, untracked by Croatia’s defence. The ball ran towards the goal-line, where Kane kept it on. The Spurs forward took one touch to bring the ball back into a shooting position, before agonisingly striking the post. When the ball was finally out of danger, the flag went up. But VAR would surely have overruled the linesman if England had found the net. Would they be left to rue these missed chances?
Croatia came into the game, and there were just a few hints that maybe the balance of the tie was changing as the half neared an end. When the half-time whistle came, England had retained their lead, but it was a lead of only one.
As the second half commenced, England looked suspiciously as though they simply hadn’t returned from the dressing room. Zlatko Dalić’s side, by contrast, were rallying, and had something to cheer about on sixty-eight minutes. Atlético Madrid right-back Šime Vrsaljko was unclosed by Ashley Young, and put a lovely ball into the box. Gareth Southgate’s decision to convert Kyle Walker to a centre-back has worked wonders so far, but Walker made his first error at a critical moment. As he stooped to head the cross away, Inter Milan winger Ivan Perišić got around the back of him and flicked the ball in deftly. There were half-hearted complaints of a high-foot, but no… Croatia were level.
From this point onwards, England fans were unable to enjoy this intense and nervy match. Croatia were growing every minute, and hit the post when the first of many mix-ups occurred in the England defence. The ball fell to goalscorer Ivan Perišić, whose step-overs got the better of Kyle Walker. Inter’s man produced a shot, which slammed back off the post. The follow-up from Ante Rebić was gathered by Jordan Pickford – England were hanging on by a thread. The comfortable nature by which England were winning the first half seemed miles away now. Croatia were the team pushing for a winner inside the ninety, but this one would go on all night.
England looked the better side in the early exchanges of extra-time and, following substitute Eric Dier’s blocked effort, earned their first corner in a while. John Stones pelted a header on goal, that would have put England back into the lead, but on-the-line Vrsaljko had other ideas. He blocked well, and Croatia survived. Minutes later, dangerman Perišić was still causing problems. A whipped ball into the box gave England’s defence no chance, but Pickford made an extraordinary point-blank save to deny Juventus striker Mario Mandžukić. But the forward, whose first ever international goal in 2008 came against England, came back to haunt The Three Lions. Ivan Perišić won an aerial miss-match with Kieran Trippier, which all three of England’s centre-backs let run. The fastest to react was Mandžukić, who let the ball do the work, before tucking a cute volley beyond Pickford’s reach. The net bulged. English heads drops. Croatia were on the brink of a first ever World Cup final.
England were a team on the brink. They had three strikers on the pitch; right-back Trippier’s injury had meant they needed to end with ten men after all subs had been used; and they had hardly been convincing in possession since the break. On 124 minutes, the World Cup dream died for England.
The Three Lions have broken so many long-standing records at this World Cup. Ultimately, their extreme lack of experience told in the end. Gareth Southgate’s men have inspired the nation to believe in the ability of England, and the appeal of international football, once again. Croatia will meet France in the final on Sunday, but it is another tie with Belgium, in St Petersburg, on Saturday for England. There they will bid to achieve their best World Cup finish since 1966. It would be their best ever foreign World Cup campaign if they did finish third. But, England can no longer win the 2018 FIFA World Cup, because they were beaten semi-finalists – 2-1 to Croatia in extra-time.