A thrilling contest went the way of the Croatians in Moscow, with Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner seeing his side past England to the tune of a 2-1 score line and into their first ever major tournament final.
Kieran Trippier opened the scoring in just the fifth minute, bending a superb free-kick up and over the wall past a hapless Danijel Subasic in the Croatian goal.
Harry Kane had a massive chance to double the lead on the half-hour mark when he was played in behind but saw his first effort saved and his subsequent follow-up rebound off the post and off Subasic and out of play from a tight angle.
Croatia dominated early proceedings in the second half and it was only a matter of time before the equaliser came, with Ivan Perisic coming in to attack Sime Vrsaljko’s cross and prodding it in with his left foot to haul his team back into the contest.
Just minutes later Perisic struck the post, pouncing on calamitous defending from the Three Lions as he drove into the box and hit the base of the right-hand post with his left-footed effort.
The first chance of extra-time fell to the English, with John Stones rising to head at the near post, only for his effort to be cleared off the line by Vrsaljko as it arced into the top left corner.
Perisic was again the architect for another opportunity for the Vatreni, playing a superb ball across goal for Mario Mandzukic to attack in the dying embers of the first period of extra-time, but Jordan Pickford was equal to it in net for the Three Lions and kept the scores level.
It was Mandzukic that would give Croatia the advantage and ultimately their spot in the final when he caught John Stones napping on a flick-on from Perisic, reacting first in the box to finish coolly into the net and spark delirium in the Croatian camp.
Croatia make history
With a victory over the Three Lions, Zlatko Dalic has guided Croatia to their first ever World Cup final, defying all odds on their way to a shock final appearance.
The ruthlessness in the group stages that saw them put Argentina to the sword and dispatch of Nigeria and Iceland has been carried into the knockout stages, where they have maintained their momentum and are well-deserved finalists.
Fighting through two grueling penalty shootouts already in this tournament, Dalic’s men were again forced to go beyond 90 minutes in this clash, but the players remained strong and continued to put their bodies on the line for the victory.
What they may lack in beautiful football and technical ability, they certainly make up for in combative nature and passion for their nation, highlighted by the fact that the Vatreni has come from a goal down in each knockout game so far.
For a country with a population of just four million people, reaching the pinnacle of world football is an incredible feat, but Dalic and the players will know the job is not done and will be hoping to stun the world and conquer France.
Just the beginning for England
Now that all the hype will inevitably die down, it is time for England and for the footballing world to fully take stock of the tournament and realise what happened.
This England team was not supposed to make the final, it was probably not even supposed to make the semi-finals. That was not the goal. The goal was to lay the foundations for future teams to build upon, that will ultimately carry them to glory in later years.
Reaching the final four was beyond expectations and was a beautiful surprise for the Three Lions, and this performance bodes well for the future of English football.
Gareth Southgate has created stability in the manager’s seat that has been desperately needed for many a year, during times where Sam Allardyce, Harry Redknapp, and Roy Hodgson had failed to make the job their own.
The beauty of it is that with such a young team, at the Euros in two years time and the World Cup in 2022, the squad will not look so different, but it will be many of the same players with four years more experience, four years more training, hitting the primes of their football careers.
The youth teams have experienced outstanding success in recent years, with the U20 World Cup and U19 European Championship victories, and heads will turn towards the likes of Dominic Solanke, Ademola Lookman, and Jadon Sancho to fly the flag for the national team in the coming years.
England is swiftly moving out of the depths of mediocrity in which they have been engulfed for some time, and although this time it failed to result in winner’s medals, it will not be long before the Three Lions are wearing them proudly around their necks.
Midfield battle decides it
Ultimately, the game was won in the middle of the park and it was Croatia that asserted their dominance in midfield and came away with the victory.
Dalic opted to select Marcelo Brozovic in the starting XI in place of Andrej Kramaric, which allowed for a more defensive and resolute midfield structure for Croatia.
The creativity and hunger of their midfield, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic alongside Brozovic, enabled them to be staunch in defense and to get the ball into the front third quickly when on the attack.
They limited England’s ability to play out from the back to great effect, which forced Harry Kane to drop deep to receive the ball, and ultimately the Spurs star and England captain was largely transparent for most of this game, struggling for touches of the ball and barely seeing anything in and around the penalty box.
Jesse Lingard was unable to take a stranglehold on the game due to being more or less marshaled out of it by his opposite numbers, with Jordan Henderson proving to be the only player that looked likely of turning it around in the middle, but his fitness cloud meant he was forced off in extra-time.
The Croatian’s will now turn their attention to doing a similar thing to France’s midfield, boasting the likes of Ngolo Kante and Paul Pogba, while England will be forced to play out the dreaded third-place playoff.