After 124 minutes of end-to-end drama, one free-kick was all that stood between Croatia and a historic victory. Marcus Rashford, having come on as a late substitute, stood over the ball preparing to deliver the free-kick that had the potential to make or break England’s deep World Cup run buoyed by their youthful exuberance. Normally Kieran Trippier would have delivered the kick, but he was sitting on the bench having picked up an injury which reduced the substitute-less English to ten men in the dying moments. The ball went into the box, and Croatian centre-back Dejan Lovren rose to head the ball away. It was over, and Croatia’s bench rushed onto the field, making no effort to hide their euphoria.
It started well for England, who came into the game full of confidence after a dream run through the tournament. The Three Lions had the lead within five minutes, courtesy of a perfect free-kick. The chance was created when Dele Alli was brought down on the edge of the area, and Trippier had the chance to shoot from a dangerous position. He made no mistake, curling the ball over Croatia’s wall and burying it in the top corner. It was an emphatic finish despite the class and finesse required to place the ball with such precision, and Danijel Subašić couldn’t get near it.Embed from Getty Images
Kieran Trippier (left) curls in the opening goal from a free-kick. The goal came within five minutes of kick-off, and it got England off to an ideal start.
Croatia had come from behind in their previous two matches, but those games had a different feel. Against a confident English side, Croatia didn’t look like drawing level in the moments that followed the goal. Instead, they only looked like falling further behind. Croatia survived against the danger posed by England’s prowess at corners, but they were obviously troubled by Raheem Sterling’s pace and their attacking play was riddled with incautious errors. Eventually, they began to work into the match, with star playmaker Luka Modrić looking particularly dangerous, but they never quite got to the point of seriously testing Jordan Pickford in the English goal.
The game began to open up as both sides settled into the match. Somehow, England didn’t score again just before the half hour when they broke through the Croatian defence with a surgically precise passing move. The move left Harry Kane facing off with Subašić in a position from which England’s captain has scored plenty of goals. His shot was saved, and his follow-up effort was hit into the post from an acute angle before rebounding against Subašić’s knee and floating across the face of goal. Croatia barely survived.
At the other end, Modrić, Šime Vrsaljko and Ante Rebić combined to create problems for England, but Rebić’s cross from the right wing was deflected away and his follow-up shot was easily stopped by Jordan Pickford. A good sliding challenge from Ashley Young saved England moments later as Ivan Perišić’s ball managed to slip past the English back three. Rebić was in position to capitalise, but the English wing-back just diverted the ball away and the corner was harmlessly dealt with. A few minutes later, Alli won the ball on the edge of the box, drew the defence in by standing completely still and gave Jesse Lingard a chance to shoot. He missed.Embed from Getty Images
Ivan Perišić wheels away in celebration as England’s defence try to make sense of Croatia’s opening goal. The equaliser allowed Croatia to get back into their game, and it drove them to deliver some of their best football of the tournament.
Croatia had some more chances as the half wound down, and Dejan Lovren’s clash with Harry Maguire in the box could have led to a penalty on the stroke of half time, but Croatia didn’t really seem like scoring. They had more of the ball in the early stages of the second half, but the spark was missing from their play. Passes were misplaced, and their most promising moves broke down in the decisive moments. They needed some kind of cutting edge against an English side that was looking increasingly comfortable. They needed a hero.
They got one. It wasn’t Modrić, or main striker Mario Mandžukić, or key midfielder Ivan Rakitić. It was Perišić. Vrsaljko provided the cross, receiving the ball in space and whipping it in towards the back post. The dynamic winger did the rest. Perišić timed his run to perfection, slipping past Trippier and approaching the unsuspecting Kyle Walker from behind. Walker dived forwards in an attempt to clear the ball, oblivious to the presence of a dangerous attacker behind him. The only indication of Perišić’s presence he received came when a leg was wrapped around him and the ball was raked into the back of the net. Croatia celebrated wildly, but Perišić wasn’t done just yet.
Soon after, he nearly shed tears of exasperation after missing a golden opportunity to hand Croatia the lead. Perišić pounced as Pickford and his defenders confusedly cleared a long ball, and he found the space to run into the box and fire off an unstoppable shot as Pickford scrambled back into position. Unfortunately for Croatia, the shot hit the post and bounced out, and England managed to survive. Perišić didn’t relent, however, and soon Croatia’s play had gone to another level. Modrić had been good, but suddenly he was calling the shots and making England’s midfield look completely inadequate. Rebić and Mandžukić were providing support, and the team was suddenly working like the well-oiled machine they had been in the tournament’s early stages. England had chances, but they weren’t looking like scoring.Embed from Getty Images
Mario Mandžukić (centre) gives Croatia the lead in the second half of extra time with a nice finish. It was the most important goal ever scored in Croatia’s footballing history, and it allowed them to reach the final for the first time.
Both sides sparred in the final stages of normal time, but neither could quite find the opening they needed to settle the match in their favour. For the third match in succession, Croatia were going to extra time, and a third consecutive penalty shootout was on the cards. The English started the extra period brightly, and they looked to have scored when John Stones’ header beat Subašić. Vrsaljko acted quickly to clear the ball off the line, and Croatia began to push in the other direction. Perišić bobbed up again to feed Mandžukić’s dangerous run as the first half of extra time drew to a close, drawing Pickford into a brilliant close range save. It was a sign of things to come.
Perišić found Mandžukić again a few minutes after play resumed for the last time, and the consequences were devastating. Josip Pivarić’s cross into the box was cleared by Walker, but he was only able to parry it to the edge of the area. Perišić and Trippier awaited the ball’s arrival, and Perišić’s height won out as he rose above the diminutive wing-back and headed the ball into the open space around the six-yard box. None of this would have been too harmful had it not been for Stones. The centre-back was caught napping by Mandžukić, and his belated response was not going to atone for his catastrophic loss of concentration while at the wheel. Croatia’s frontman slammed the ball past Pickford’s dive, and Croatia were through. Photographers were kissed as a huge and joyous scrum formed, and Croatia had one foot in the final.
They managed to hold on. The Croatians professionally ran down the clock, even managing to mount some dangerous counter-attacks as Trippier’s injury left England a man down and dangerously exposed. Rashford’s free-kick was the last roll of the dice, and England’s hopes were extinguished as the attack was snuffed out emphatically. England are still young, and they may well push for the title again four years from now, but four years is a long time. They may not get a better chance to lift the trophy that has proved so elusive in the last 50 years. For Croatia, a date with France, their semi-final opponents in 1998, awaits. They have already eclipsed the famous team of 20 years ago, and the final will give them another chance to make history. They have the players to do it.
Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Croatia 2 (Perišić 68, Mandžukić 109)
England 1 (Trippier 5) (a.e.t)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Tur)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 95); Rakitić, Brozović; Rebić (Kramarić 101), Modrić (Badelj 119), Perišić; Mandžukić (Ćorluka 115).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker (Vardy 112), Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli, Henderson (Dier 97), Lingard, Young (Rose 91); Sterling (Rashford 74), Kane.
Ivan Perišić reacts after the final whistle. Perišić stood up with the game on the line, scoring and providing an assist in Croatia’s historic victory.
1. Ivan Perišić (Croatia)
When Croatia needed someone to break the game open, Perišić stepped up. His smart positioning allowed him to capitalise on Vrsaljko’s dangerous ball into the box, and he continued to break the English defence open with a series of dangerous runs and incisive passes. is HHis assist for Mandžukić’s extra time winner was a fitting way to cap off a devastating performance.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Perišić was the cutting edge that finally allowed Croatia to realise their potential and beat the English, but Modrić was the man pulling the strings. Croatia’s captain showed his experience with a masterful midfield display which put England on the back foot and allowed Croatia’s talent to shine through.
3. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s brilliant individual tournament ended rather unsatisfactorily, with the wing-back sitting on the bench as his team slumped to a heartbreaking defeat. He was, however, the man who put them in the box seat with a brilliant free-kick, and his performance was a good one until it was cruelly curtailed.
4. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
England had looked solid in their previous matches, but Mandžukić highlighted their lack of defensive experience with some wily runs and clever forward play. His winning goal will go down in Croatian footballing history, and it capped off a great performance in which he used his skills to good effect and combined perfectly with his attacking teammates.
5. Šime Vrsaljko (Croatia)
Vrsaljko wasn’t expected to feature in the semi-final after injuring himself during Croatia’s quarter-final clash with Russia, but he managed to get up for the game and he showed that he is an important part of Croatia’s success. He assisted the first goal, and he managed to push up the field and joining to the attack while making some key defensive contributions.