Croatia seal historic extra time win over tamed Lions

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Top 5
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.

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Dismal Argentina picked apart by ruthless Croatians

The game was all but over. A listless Argentinian team had been destroyed by a clinical Croatian side, and they were waiting to be put out of their misery by the final blast of referee Ravshan Irmatov’s whistle. Talismanic captain Lionel Messi had done nothing. In goal, Willy Caballero had been woeful. Now, in the dying moments, Croatia ran forward on the counter-attack. Three men broke forward against a stretched Argentinian defence, and the ball reached Ivan Rakitić in the centre. Rakitić fired a shot at Caballero, who dived to make the save but couldn’t tip it out of harm’s way. Instead, it fell to late substitute Mateo Kovačić. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, he could have easily scored then and there. He decided not to, playing a pass into Rakitić, who brought the ball to a complete stop before disdainfully stroking it past Marcos Acuña into the back of the net. Croatia’s previous two goals were bad enough. This one was so contemptuous, and showed so little respect for Argentina’s proud footballing history, that it was much worse. Before Rakitić’s goal, Croatia had beaten Argentina. After Rakitić scored, the defeat became a humiliation.

It hadn’t started that poorly for Argentina. They won their fair share of possession in the early stages, and managed to find a few little openings against the Croatian defence. Croatia had most of the clear-cut chances, like when Ivan Perišić tore into space and drilled a shot at Caballero, and when Mario Mandžukić couldn’t quite connect with an open header from close range, but they weren’t dominating. Then, Argentina blew their best opportunity of the match. It started on the wing, where Acuña cut inside right-back Šime Vrsaljko and caught Dejan Lovren out of position. When Domagoj Vida deflected the resulting cross straight to Enzo Pérez on the edge of the box, the midfielder was faced with a defence in disarray and an open net. Somehow, he missed.

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Jorge Sampaoli (front) looks on as Croatia put the finishing touches on their victory. Sampaoli came into the match under a lot of pressure, and the crushing defeat didn’t help his cause.

As the stalemate continued to linger, Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli was nervous. After Argentina’s first-up draw with Iceland he was under pressure, and it showed. When Maximiliano Meza’s attempt at a cross inadvertently hit the bar, he threw his arms up in the air. When Ante Rebić, right in front of the Argentinian bench, fouled Eduardo Salvio, Sampaoli raged at the referee, calling for a red card and trying to find someone – anyone – with whom he could air his concerns. Occasionally, he summoned a mysterious-looking long-haired assistant, and, with their mouths covered in case Croatia had a lip reader handy, they engaged in tactical discussions. Mostly, though, the bald-headed coach just paced around his technical area, wearing a black jacket, a black shirt and a concerned demeanour. He walked at a disconcertingly fast pace, as though he was running late for an important appointment. As the contest became increasingly physical, Sampaoli became increasingly tense.

Then, shortly after the break, Croatia took the lead in embarrassing circumstances. The goal was a gift. Argentina intercepted Croatia’s long heave forward, and Gabriel Mercado played it back to his goalkeeper. He shouldn’t have. When Caballero got the ball, he looked to pass it back to Mercado. Even with Rebić standing vaguely in between them, it shouldn’t have been a hard task. After all, Rebić’s press was more a token gesture than a serious attempt to win the ball back. Then Caballero tried a chip pass, mishit it and ballooned it in the direction of Rebić, who made no mistake with the volley. It was a farcical piece of play, and it left Argentina chasing the game against a strong Croatian team.

At one point, Gonzalo Higuaín nearly created an equaliser with a nice cut-back for Meza, but Danijel Subašić made a fine reflex save and Rakitić desperately slid in to prevent Messi from getting himself a goal. Argentina’s star, hero and occasional one-man team had been completely shut down, and his teammates couldn’t cope. As the game went on, Messi showed signs of frustration. On the touchline, Sampaoli had ditched the jacket, and was now pacing around in a slightly-too-tight black t-shirt which clearly showed his heavily tattooed arms. He was frantic, and the removal of the jacket only made him look more nervous. His substitutions had been made, and it was out of his hands. Then Luka Modrić scored.

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Luka Modrić (right) celebrates after doubling Croatia’s lead late in the game. Modrić’s goal from long range capped off a brilliant performance in midfield.

Modrić, as ever, had been excellent in midfield. Now, with 10 minutes of normal time left to play, he received the ball on the edge of the box, with Nicolás Otamendi barring his way. He took a touch to the right, then the left, before going right again. Then he unleashed a shot at the Argentinian goal. Otamendi was there, but his outstretched right leg couldn’t impede the ball’s progress. Caballero dived full length, but he could only get his fingertips to the ball and couldn’t stop it as it lodged itself in the bottom corner. It was a great goal, and it sealed Argentina’s fate. Sampaoli’s team were in no mood to attempt a miraculous comeback.

Tempers flared late, with Otamendi nearly starting a brawl by lashing out at Rakitić and two other players receiving yellow cards as the match drew to a close. Argentina tried to manufacture something in attack, relying on the immensely talented players on the pitch to see them through, but there was no real structure and Croatia rebuffed them with contemptuous ease. After Rakitić’s goal, and with the game drawing to a close, Sampaoli could only stand in the dugout and stare into the distance. Argentina still have a chance to progress, but that chance is as slim as ever. Their talents have failed, Sampaoli’s time as coach is almost certainly coming to a disappointing end, and it would take a miracle for Messi to get his World Cup title. In Argentina, football is so revered that it’s not too much of an exaggeration to call this defeat a national crisis. There’s no way of knowing how big the fallout of this crushing defeat – against brilliant opposition, it must be said – will prove to be.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Argentina 0
Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Referee: Ravshan Irmatov (Uzb)
Argentina (3-4-3): Caballero – Mercado, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Salvio (Pavón 56), Pérez (Dybala 68), Mascherano, Acuña; Messi, Agüero (Higuaín 54), Meza.
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Brozović; Perišić (Kovačić 82), Modrić, Rebić (Kramarić 57); Mandžukić (Ćorluka 90+3).

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Ivan Rakitić finishes off Croatia’s win with a goal into an open net. Rakitić put in a brilliant midfield performance, and the late goal was just reward for his efforts.

Top 5
1. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić finished off a simple chance in injury time to cap off a brilliant individual game with a deserved goal. He fought hard all day, and his block to deny Messi from close range was a perfect example of how hard he worked defensively. In attack, he combined well with Modrić and started to get into dangerous positions, and his all-round performance bodes well for the rest of the tournament.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić was at his best directing traffic in the middle of the park. He was always on hand to pick out a key pass, make a dangerous little run or find some other way to trouble Argentina’s defence, and he capped it off with a brilliant goal from long range. With him pulling the strings in the middle there is very little Croatia can’t do.
3. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić went off injured less than an hour into the game, but he left a mark with his incredibly vigorous attack on the ball. He was rewarded for his hard running with a goal when he intercepted Caballero’s horrendous pass and made a tough volley look deceptively easy, and Croatia will hope he is fit to take the field for their final group stage game.
4. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
Mandžukić is still yet to score a goal at this tournament, but he has looked so good leading the line that he is sure to find the scoresheet some time soon. He used his physical power and excellent positioning to intimidate the Argentinian defence, and he could have bagged a couple of goals with headers that only just missed the target.
5. Marcos Acuña (Argentina)
Coming into the team after Argentina’s disappointing display against Iceland, Acuña was one of few bright spots to come out of the loss. He fought hard until the end, and showed some promise shuffling up and down the left wing. His crosses were about the most dangerous aspect of Argentina’s play.

Workmanlike Croatia shut out toothless Nigeria

On paper, this match-up was tantalising. Croatia and Nigeria both have the capacity to thrill and disappoint, and it seemed like the clash between the two could provide plenty of excitement and plenty of drama. In the end, it achieved neither, with the Croatians putting in a workmanlike but rather unspectacular performance and their opponents struggling to make headway in attack. By the final whistle Croatia had a two-goal buffer, with an own goal and a penalty their reward for a disciplined performance against a toothless Nigerian side.

Croatia settled into the rhythm of the game fairly quickly, knocking the ball around with confidence, controlling the majority of possession and largely keeping the Nigerians away from their attacking third. For all that control, however, they never really looked like making an impact on the scoreboard, even if their front four of Mario Mandžukić, Ante Rebić, Ivan Perišić and Andrej Kramarić were occasionally threatening. Then, after a reasonably mundane first half hour in which neither team looked like making inroads, Croatia took the lead.

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Croatia celebrate after opening the scoring through an Oghenekaro Etebo own goal. The goal was very scrappy, with a number of players getting touches to bundle a Luka Modrić corner into the back of the net.

The goal originated from a corner, but it still came slightly out of the blue. Luka Modrić, whose new role deeper in midfield had left him largely isolated from the attack, delivered the corner perfectly to Rebić at the front post. That was where the beauty of the move stopped. Eventually the ball made its way across goal, rolling meekly past Francis Uzoho into the back of the net. No one player could be called responsible, with Rebić’s flick-on header, Mandžukić’s outmanoeuvring of William Troost-Ekong and subsequent headed shot and Oghenekaro Etebo’s unlucky diversion of said shot into his own net all contributing to the end result. It was scrappy, but it did the trick for Croatia. The fact that they still hadn’t put a shot on target didn’t really matter too much.

After taking the lead the Croats simply continued to play as they had before, doing nothing spectacular but keeping the Nigerians from gaining any traction with their controlled passing and security in possession. Victor Moses threatened to break free on a couple of occasions, but a couple of near-breaks was hardly enough to send shivers through the Croatian defence. The half time break didn’t halt their charge, and they created a few more chances but, most importantly, they were secure in their one-goal advantage and never gave Nigeria the window of opportunity they were after. Then they scored again, and the result was beyond doubt.

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Francis Uzoho (front) makes a save to deny Mateo Kovačić (second from right) late in the game. Uzoho became the first teenage goalkeeper to appear in the tournament since 2002, and he put in a decent showing.

Once again, the goal started with a corner and Modrić’s excellent delivery into the penalty area. This time, however, it didn’t pick out a Croatian player, with Leon Balogun heading the ball away from a dangerous spot and Nigeria emerging with the ball, seemingly unscathed. Unfortunately for the Super Eagles, Troost-Ekong decided to use illegal tactics to keep Mandžukić out of the action, wrapping both arms around the big striker before bringing him to the ground in a move which would not have been out of place at a WWE event. Even more unfortunately for Nigeria, Troost-Ekong’s roughhousing of his dangerous opponent did not go unnoticed by Sandro Ricci, allowing Modrić to slam the penalty home.

Down two goals, Nigeria tried desperately to make a final push, but there was no coming back for the Super Eagles and their lacklustre attack. Croatia had a chance to increase their lead late when Mateo Kovačić forced a good save from Uzoho, but that missed opportunity won’t weigh too heavily on their minds after their professional ninety minute effort. Nigeria’s struggles, on the other hand, show they have a long way to go, and they will need to turn things around quickly if they want to hang around past the group stage.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen)
Nigeria 0
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Bra)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Modrić; Perišić, Kramarić (Brozović 60), Rebić (Kovačić 78); Mandžukić (Pjaca 85).
Nigeria (4-2-3-1): Uzoho – Abdullahi Shehu, Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Idowu; Ndidi, Etebo; Moses, Mikel (Nwankwo 88), Iwobi (Musa 62); Ighalo (Iheanacho 75).

Top 5
1. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
Mandžukić played a key role in both of Croatia’s goals. He was the last Croatian to touch the ball before Etebo diverted it into his own net, and he won the penalty that sealed the win after Troost-Ekong crudely felled him in the box. He got himself into good positions throughout and used his size to his advantage, and he caused plenty of issues for the Nigerian defence.
2. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić was everywhere for the Croatians, spending time on both the left and right wings and working very hard wherever he happened to be positioned. He was tireless in both attack and defence, chasing up every ball and proving to be a handful whenever he received possession in attack. He was the most dangerous player early on, and did enough to earn another run in a strong Croatian team.
3. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić started the game quietly, but his set piece delivery created all of his side’s meaningful chances and Croatia’s play improved dramatically when he got more time on the ball in attack. He sealed the win with a perfectly taken penalty, and, given his high standards, left himself plenty of room for improvement for the rest of the tournament. He could have a big impact.
4. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses was Nigeria’s most active player, and was the only Super Eagle on the field who looked capable of making his own opportunities. He showed glimpses of his immense talents and gave Ivan Strinić plenty to think about, and he was one of the hardest workers on the field. If he gets some support, he could be a very dangerous player in the rest of the tournament.
5. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić’s role was mainly in the background, but he was very secure with the ball at his feet and that security allowed the rest of the team to thrive. He showed his vision and quality with some of his incisive passes, and he performed his defensive duties in the centre of midfield well. When he and Modrić find their rhythm as a combination the Croatians will be tough to stop.