France saw off Belgium by 1-0 on Tuesday evening, courtesy of a Samuel Umtiti header, and secured a place in the 2018 World Cup final. They were anxiously waiting to find out who they will face for the greatest trophy of international football, possibly the greatest of all. That opponent was to be decided between Croatia and England the next day.
Croatia kicked the hosts Russia out of the tournament in the quarterfinal on penalties, and late on in that game they had a huge scare as goalkeeper Danijel Subašić went down clutching his hamstring, but the excellent shot-stopper turned out to be fine. Apart from him, coach Zlatko Dalić chose what he clearly believes to be the best XI at his disposal. The back line was formed as a quartet by Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, Šime Vršaljko and Ivan Strinić. Marcelo Brozović and Ivan Rakitić acted as the two deep-sitting midfielders behind Ivan Perišić on the left, Luka Modrić in the No.10 role and Ante Rebić on the right. Mario Mandžukić led the line upfront.
Like Dalić, Gareth Southgate in the England dugout opted not to meddle with his team for such a huge clash after they sent Sweden home in the previous round. Jordan Pickford was therefore once again between the posts, John Stones commanded the back three with Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire on either side, Jordan Henderson anchored the midfield with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard ahead of him, Kieran Trippier on the right and Ashley Young on the left played in the wing-back roles, while Harry Kane played as the furthest one upfront, supported by Raheem Sterling.
The First Half
England established control of the game early and it didn’t take them long to get ahead. Just four minutes were gone when a foul by Modrić on Alli was given around 20 yards from the goal. The free-kick was perfectly bent over the wall and into the top corner by Trippier and there was nothing Subašić could do.
It took Croatia quite a while to snap out of the shock of going down so early. They tried to weave their play patiently and apply some architecture in their attacks, but it wasn’t working out. England were quick to drop deeper and set their defence in its default shape, making it very hard to come close to Pickford. They were also very quick to spring a counterattack. The Croats were showing nerves at the back and Lovren was very lucky not to get booked on two occasions, first after tactically taking out Kane in the middle of the pitch to prevent him from an open run towards the goal, and later for mowing down Sterling on the wing. They were all lucky not to go further behind after a misunderstanding at the back saw the Manchester City winger intercept a pass in front of the box, but his pass in turn caught Kane offside. The Spurs striker also messed up a good chance himself as he broke through and his initial shot saved by Subašić. He picked up the rebound and aimed another shot from very close range, albeit from a tight angle, but it hit the post and bounced off the Monaco ‘keeper and away from the goal.
But after about half an hour, Croatia changed their approach and started moving the ball much faster. Their more direct play brought results as Rebić, Perišić and Rakitić all found themselves in good positions to score, but they just couldn’t find an equalizer. England stuck to their game-plan and the game developed into a very open contest, but there were no more goals before the break.
The Second Half
Needing to chase a result, Croatia entered the second period with plenty of energy, but also nerves again. Just two minutes in, a foul was given against them as Rebić threw an arm into Walker’s face, and Mandžukić picked up a booking for dissent. But they were gradually pushing forward nonetheless.
Walker himself got booked soon afterwards for trying to prevent Croatia from taking a throw-in as the English started using non-football methods to prevent them from turning their attacks into a series. But whenever they broke through the other way, England looked dangerous.
Minor scuffles were a regular feature throughout the second half. Although in the lead, English players were also occasionally nervy, especially Lingard and Alli.
The flow of the game was set at Croatia attacking more and England looking to hit hard with direct play, and after 68 minutes the score was level. A good cross by Vršaljko from the right was taken off the head of Walker by the foot of Perišić who directed it into the back of the net.
It was England’s turn to look shell-shocked and Croatia came very close to turning the game completely on its head just a few minutes later as Perišić hit the post from around 10 yards and Rebić on the rebound had his tame shot saved.
Southgate sensed he needed to act quickly and Sterling soon left the pitch to make way for Marcus Rashford. The change perhaps seemed too straightforward initially, but it sure gave England some energy. They broke through the shock-caused shackles and started hitting back. Lingard and Alli combined and ruined a good chance, Henderson blasted one high over the bar, but Mandžukić’s volley saved by Pickford and a missed lob by Perišić at the other end served as timely reminders that the traffic was still going both ways. The game was at its full pace, the excitement at its maximum as the end of the 90 minutes slowly approached.
As the injury time began, Rashford went for a dribble against Rakitić on the right and the Barcelona midfielder tripped him. It was a very good set-piece situation for England and Trippier took it very good, but Kane didn’t hit his header the way he wanted and failed to direct it on target. Croatia then went forward but they couldn’t create anything worthy of mention and the referee’s whistle marked the end of regular time.
Into the Extra-Time
England went into attack mode straight away. Within ten minutes, Southgate had replaced Young with Danny Rose and Henderson with Eric Dier, and the fresh legs shone immediately as they created a few dangerous moments, but the most dangerous of all fell for Stones as his header beat Subašić but was cleared off the line by Vršaljko.
Dalić then responded by taking out Rebić and sending in Andrej Kramarić. Strinić had been forced off earlier with an injury, and Josip Pivarić was on the pitch in his place.
Croatia went to hit back. First Modrić released a run of Perišić and the move ended with Kramarić having a shot blocked, and then Perišić produced a fantastic chance for Mandžukić with a sublime cross, but Pickford made an incredible save to deny the striker.
After the short break, England fell back and allowed their opposition to win space all over the pitch, which the Croats used to their advantage and attacked. First Brozović missed the target from around 12 yards after a cunningly taken corner, and then, Perišić headed the ball behind the England defence, Stones got caught on his heels and was beaten to it by Mandžukić who slotted past Pickford with ease.
It was time for England to abandon caution and throw everything they have into going for an equalizer. Walker made way for Leicester striker Jamie Vardy. But for all their efforts, it was Croatia that came closer to adding a third when Kramarić broke into the box and took a shot from a tight angle over the bar. Perišić was completely unmarked ten yards from the goal on the other side, screaming and waving his arms at the Hoffenheim attacker.
England suffered another blow late on as Trippier limped off the pitch unable to continue, with no substitutions left to Southgate to make. Nevertheless, they gave it a go with ten men, but it wasn’t to be.
Croatia showed immense spirit by finding their way back into the contest having gone down early, and even though many considered them as the underdogs in this game, they deservedly won the day and now head to the final to square up to France. It would be a huge success for any team in the world and it’s certainly a huge success for Zlatko Dalić and his men.
For all the confidence that was spreading around England ahead of this game, for all the “it’s coming home” shouts, it’s back to the drawing board for Gareth Southgate. On the other hand, for all the disappointment this defeat has caused, it would be unfair not to credit the man who became the England manager by chance, following the sacking of Sam Allardyce, and brought them so close to fulfilling the nation’s 52-year dream. There is no doubt that for England, better days are coming under Southgate, better than they’ve known for a long time.
CROATIA: Subašić 7, Lovren 7.5, Vida 7.5, Vršaljko 8, Strinić 7.5 (95′ Pivarić 7.5), Rakitić 8, Brozović 7.5, Perišić 8, Modrić 8 (119′ Badelj), Rebić 8 (101′ Kramarić 7), Mandžukić 7.5 (115′ Ćorluka, N/A).
ENGLAND: Pickford 8, Walker 7 (112′ Vardy N/A), Stones 6.5, Maguire 7.5, Henderson 7 (97′ Dier N/A), Alli 6.5, Lingard 7, Trippier 7.5, Young 7 (91′ Rose 7.5), Sterling 7.5 (74′ Rashford 7), Kane 6.5.
GOALS: Trippier 5′, Perišić 68′, Mandžukić 109′.
YELLOW CARDS: Mandžukić 48′, Walker 54′, Rebić 95′.
RED CARDS: None.
REFEREE: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).
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