Gareth Southgate admits the third-place play-off is not a game that any team wants to play in, leaving the England manager facing a challenge to prepare his players in the wake of their World Cup heartache.
Belgium lie in wait this Saturday in St Petersburg after Croatia inflicted a crushing defeat. Football will not come home on Sunday, but a physically and emotionally drained England squad will.
Kieran Trippier’s early free-kick had England dreaming of a first major final since 1966, only for Ivan Perisic to level and Mario Mandzukic to strike in extra-time.
But there is still one more match to go for the Three Lions. Saturday’s match is sure to feel like an unnecessary exertion to some, but it offers the chance to secure England’s second-best World Cup finish as Sir Bobby Robson’s semi-finalists lost their third-place play-off in 1990.
“The honest thing is it’s not a game any team wants to play in,” Southgate said ahead of the match against the Red Devils.
“We have two days to prepare. We will want to give a performance of huge pride. There’s no question about that. It’s always there every time we wear the shirt of our national team, we want to play with pride, we want to play well and win.
“Of course it is going to be a really difficult task over the next 24 hours to assess everybody and to get everybody mentally back to where we want them for a game like that.
“But that will be the challenge. I think it is too easy to move on immediately from what we’ve just been through.
“But we will do that and we’ll make sure we are ready as a group to go again because the group have huge pride in their performances, in the way that they work.
“And we have made such strides with our supporters and our public that we want to continue to do that.”
Southgate and his players are sure to be greeted as heroes when they return from Russia, but underlying frustration will linger after missing their shot at glory.
“I’m trying to get the balance right of recognising tonight was a wonderful opportunity for us and you can’t guarantee that those opportunities come again,” the England boss said.
“But equally we want to be a team that are hitting quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals – that is what we have aimed to do in the long term. And we’ve proved that is possible. We have proved to ourselves and our country that it is possible.
“Now we have a new benchmark, a new level of expectation. It will be a different sort of scenario.
“But for these players, many have come of age on an international stage and I couldn’t be prouder with what they’ve done.”
The last month has seen England reconnect with a disillusioned fan base, putting in performances that point towards a brighter future.
There is still work to be done and finding a way to create more chances from open play looks chief among Southgate’s tasks.
“I think our job is to maximise the strengths that we have and to make the most of the team that we have,” the England boss said, having seen nine of his side’s 12 goals come from set-pieces.
To everyone who supported us.— England (@England) 11 July 2018
To everyone who believed this time was different.
To everyone who wasn't afraid to dream.
To everyone who knows this is only the beginning.
Thank you. We hope we made you proud. #threelions pic.twitter.com/jH8lYMB2E0
“The ability of the team and the style of play we’ve evolved enormously in a short period of time.
“But I’ve said all along we’re not perfect, we’re not the finished article. There’s a long way for us to go.
“Against the very best teams, we’ve not managed to get the wins. But we’ve won a lot of matches that historically England haven’t won.
“So we have got to look at the progress we’ve made and, as the players get more experienced and there are other young players to come through that we think are very exciting as well, then slowly the style of play and threat we pose can evolve even more.
“But I think within the games that we’ve played, we’ve played exciting, attacking football.
“We’ve created good chances in pretty much every that game we’ve played, and the strength in set-plays was something that we put a focus on because we knew the importance of it, so for me that’s been a positive rather than a negative.”
It was Les Bleus who ended the fledgling nation’s previous run at the 1998 tournament as Aime Jacquet’s side triumphed 2-1 in the semi-final on their way to lifting a maiden World Cup trophy against Brazil in the final on home soil.
The Vatreni are into their first ever World Cup final following an extra-time 2-1 victory over England in Moscow on Wednesday.
They will meet France in Sunday’s final at the same venue and Dalic feels the clash at the Luzhniki Stadium is an opportunity for his nation to avenge the defeat of 20 years ago.
“In 1998, I was in France for the first three games as a supporter. I had to go back [to Hajduk Split] for pre-season for the last games,” said Dalic, who up until 18 months ago was in charge of Al Ain in the UAE.
“Of course, everybody in Croatia remembers [Lilian] Thuram, the 2-1. This has been the discussion for the last 20 years.
“Maybe this game has a historic significance. The chance to settle a score. Both teams have shown their qualities and are deserved finalists.
“This is football, what we have to do is focus on preparing the best game in the tournament in the final.”
Croatia were incredibly pushed to extra time for a third straight game in their 2-1 triumph over the Three Lions, with Mario Mandzukic scoring a 109th-minute winner, after Ivan Perisic levelled in the second half of normal time following Kieran Trippier’s excellent free-kick to open the scoring after just five minutes.
Dalic lauded his team’s character after they came from behind for the third consecutive game.
“I insisted that I cannot teach these players football, they play fantastic football already. I am in charge of some other things. This is what they have accepted,” he said.
“Initially, on their part there was not full trust and confidence but as the tournament progressed they have gained confidence. They are stronger in terms of mentality, strength.
“I said this tournament would be won by teams with character who execute on the pitch as their coach shows them. We were 1-0 down in three games in a row and we overtook all these. We have done that today in extra time.
“On top of all the football qualities, they have shown character. We are a nation of people who are proud, never give in and have character.”
The skipper said detractors “should be more humble” and show greater respect after his side’s 2-1 extra-time win shattered England’s dreams of glory in Russia.
Modric, who will on Sunday lead Croatia into their first ever World Cup final, suggested his team had set out to prove a point after noting unfavourable views aired by critics prior to Wednesday’s match.
“Especially English journalists, pundits from television, they underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake,” Modric told ITV Sport.
“All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying, ‘OK, today we will see who will be tired’. And like I said they should be more humble and respect more opponents.
“But we showed again that we were not tired, we dominated the game physically, mentally, in all aspects.”
The Real Madrid midfielder, 32, has dazzled in Russia and is now just a victory over France away from lifting the biggest prize in world football.
It would be a momentous occasion for Croatia, whose previous best performance was a semi-final loss to France in 1998.
“This is an amazing achievement for us,” he said. “It’s a dream come true after such a long time.
“We are in the final. It is the biggest success in Croatian history in sport and we have to be proud.”