Croatia yesterday began preparations for their first FIFA World Cup final after they came from behind to crush England’s hopes in an enthralling contest.
The Balkan nation of just 4 million people are to play France on Sunday after Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner in Wednesday’s semi-final prolonged England’s 52-year wait to reach a second World Cup final.
England roared into the lead in just the fifth minute through Kieran Trippier’s superb free-kick, but Croatia hit back through Ivan Perisic and Mandzukic to win 2-1 in front of 78,000 spectators at Luzhniki Stadium.
With the victory over Gareth Southgate’s young team, Croatia have surpassed the achievements of the heroes of 1998, when they reached the semi-finals in France in their first World Cup as an independent nation.
Their players celebrated wildly in the Russian capital, while in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, tens of thousands of fans poured onto the streets and squares, singing, setting off flares and waving red-white-and-blue flags.
Coach Zlatko Dalic’s side were clearly exhausted, but they battled through extra-time once again.
“This is fantastic,” Dalic said. “Two players played with half a leg, but it didn’t show. In extra-time nobody wanted to be substituted.”
“This shows character and is what makes me proud. Nobody gave up,” he said.
Croatia must recover quickly for Sunday’s showpiece — no easy feat after being taken to extra-time for a third consecutive match, meaning they have played the equivalent of one match more than France.
“We prepared to get to the final and we want to play it. Going to extra-time might be a problem along with the fact France have had an extra day to recover, but there will be no excuses,” Dalic said.
England’s players slumped onto the turf at the final whistle, barely able to believe that their hopes had been dashed after reaching a first semi-final since 1990.
“We’re gutted,” said Harry Kane, whose golden touch deserted him on Wednesday, but he is still on course to finish as the tournament’s top goal-scorer with six goals.
“It hurts, it hurts a lot. It’s going to hurt for a while, of course. We can hold our heads up high. It’s been a fantastic journey. We got further than anyone else could thought we would have,” he added.
Having led for more than an hour, the defeat will be difficult for England to digest, but their young team have won many admirers in Russia.
“I can’t ask for more from the players,” Southgate said. “I think knockout football is about fine margins and when you have good spells against fine sides you need to take your chances.”
“Tonight we weren’t quite there, but we will learn from that. We left everything out there,” he added.
In London, an initial wave of elation turned to heartbreak as 30,000 beer-soaked fans in Hyde Park watched their team come up short.
Trippier gave England a dream start, curling in a free-kick past the despairing dive of Danijel Subasic after Dele Alli was brought down in a central position.
Croatia started to find their range in the second half and Perisic leveled for Croatia in the 68th minute, nipping ahead of Kyle Walker to steer home Sime Vrsaljko’s cross past a diving Jordan Pickford.
The game went into strength-sapping extra-time and Mandzukic scored the winning goal in the 109th minute, sweeping the ball low past Pickford after Perisic’s header back into the area caught the England defense on the hop.
Prince William, president of the Football Association, said that despite the defeat, England could be proud of Southgate’s team.
“I know how disappointed @england must feel right now but I couldn’t be more proud of this team and you should hold your heads high,” he said on Twitter.
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