For another four years at least, it is not coming home. Mario Mandzukic made absolutely sure of that when he struck an extra-time winner to beat England 2-1 and book Croatia’s place in the World Cup final, with France lying in wait.
Kieran Trippier had given England an early lead with a sublime free-kick, but Ivan Perisic equalised in the second half before Mandzukic’s winner.
England’s pace and movement were key in pulling Croatia apart in the opening 45 minutes.
Starting with Harry Kane, the number nine has hardly been England’s furthest player forward at this World Cup and that was the case again as he regularly dropped deep to show for the ball.
Raheem Sterling was the one running beyond him, alert to any flicked headers from his captain. The Manchester City man once again worked extremely hard for the team and was integral to England’s efforts to stretch the Croatian defence.
The long ball into space for Sterling was always on, keeping centre-backs Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren on their toes and running them ragged. Meanwhile, Jesse Lingard also found himself operating beyond Kane as well.
The Tottenham striker would use his physique to receive the ball to feet before turning his man and running at the defence. He would then have forward runners on either side of him for options. However, England failed to capitalise on this strategy while it lasted in the first half with the final ball or finish lacking.
CROATIA SWITCH GEARS
The two sides that emerged for the second half were almost unrecognisable from those that played the first. Croatia were desperate not to leave it late and came out on the front foot.
England seemed to be caught off guard by their opponents’ raised tempo and retreated to the edge of their own half.
Zlatko Dalic’s side gleefully accepted the bulk of possession and the upper hand that came with it. Indeed, England only had 30 per cent of the ball in the second half.
Luka Modric barely had room to operate in the first half, while Marcelo Brozovic was largely bypassed and Ivan Rakitic was far too deep.
That all changed in the second period. As England backed off and invited Croatia onto them, the midfield trio were far more influential, taking up positions much higher up.
The equaliser had been coming with the Croats taking advantage of England’s retreat, eventually scoring from a cross.
From then on, the momentum was with Croatia and the Three Lions were rattled. They struggled in possession and after being breached, looked even more nervy on the ball.
John Stones’ sloppy pass at the back almost led to a second for Croatia while the likes of Lingard and Alli dropped further back, creating a huge gulf between midfield and attack, isolating the forward line.
SOUTHGATE FALLS SHORT
The man who masterminded his young team’s run to the semi-finals, turned a nation’s pessimism into unchecked belief and inspired ‘Waistcoat Wednesday’ must be called into question. He’s shown himself to be tactically proficient at this World Cup and has conducted himself impeccably but wasn’t proactive enough on this occasion.
His substitutions with England chasing the game were strange. Sterling always looked like a threat in behind, but he was hooked for Marcus Rashford who failed to make an impact.
Lingard and Alli clearly got worse as the game went on but both remained on the pitch until the bitter end, while Henderson – who was most assured in possession – was replaced.
Meanwhile, Kane’s withdrawn positioning was increasingly bewildering. While he did drop off in the first half, he seemed to set up camp around the centre circle towards the end of the game.
He almost played like a holding midfielder at times, trying to feed balls through for the likes of Rashford and Alli.
Southgate deserves credit for an unprecedented semi-final berth, but he must shoulder the bulk of the blame for this defeat.
When the World Cup began, not much was expected of Zlatko Dalic and Croatia. A round of 16 place would have been satisfactory, quarter-final spot a bonus, but starring in the semi-final wouldn’t have been on anyone’s mind.
Yet here Dalic’s men are, in their first-ever World Cup final, after they dispatched England with a gritty 2-1 win courtesy of goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic.
Here’s a closer look at what the Croatia manager – who left UAE club Al Ain under a cloud just 18 months ago – achieved on Wednesday.
Goals – 2
Shots – 22
Shots on target – 7
Possession – 55%
Passing accuracy – 80%
Dalic’s big call was to bring Marcelo Brozovic back into their starting XI in order to get Luka Modric further forward. The strategy didn’t quite work in the first half as England pressed Croatia’s midfield back through a succession of long balls.
Dalic appeared to push his side higher up after half-time and he must have issued some rallying words too as his side, and star player, got on the front foot.
His ability to motivate a fatigued team came to the fore again, geeing his team up for a third straight winning dalliance with extra time.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Cross, cross, cross
On the face of it, England don’t have an obvious vulnerability to crosses due to the height and physicality of their defenders although they can be error-prone at times.
But Croatia do like to use their width, and Wednesday was no different as they peppered the Three Lions’ box, sending in 41 crosses. Both their goals came this way – one directly from a cross and one from a second ball after an initial cross was cleared. Mandzukic in particular profited from the strategy.
The team that reached the semi-final in 1998 was the one always looked up to in the country – including by many in the current squad – but Dalic has etched his name into history by taking this team one step further. This was another battling performance from a Croatia team that is equal parts plucky and brilliant.
The manager and his side are now one step away from the ultimate glory – and one of the most unexpected stories in football history.
RATING – 8/10
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Croatia’s players squeezed every last drop out of their bodies on Wednesday night and no one wrung out more than the match-winning Ivan Perisic.
After a sluggish first-half – with the Croats undoubtedly feeling the effects of two bouts of extra-time – Perisic was one of the men to find a second wind and scored the equalising goal before setting Mario Mandzukic through for the winner in the 109th minute.
Below, we take a closer look at the Inter Milan attacker’s all-action display.
Croatia put a knife through the heart of England’s hopes at the Luzhniki Stadium and the blade was sharpened by Ivan Perisic. The 29-year-old looked frazzled early on, like many of his team-mates, and took a succession of wayward shots that were greeted by England supporters with glee.
That glee soon turned to gloom. Perisic had been having a low-key World Cup – subbed on the hour against Russia – but his Zlatan-esque high-boot finish, beating Kyle Walker to the punch, put Croatia back on track.
He then caught John Stones napping by sending the ball sailing over English heads and laying it on for Mandzukic to smash past Jordan Pickford in the second-half of extra time.
Big-game player – Croatia lack for true striking options outside Mario Mandzukic, meaning Perisic is so key coming off his wing. Not only did he supply a cute finish but picked the lock that the likes of Luka Modric couldn’t for the winner. Where has this Perisic been all tournament?
Movement – With England’s three centre-backs sharing various heart-in-mouth moments in the second half and beyond, and Kieran Trippier visibly tiring, Perisic used his incessant harrying and sheer will to crack what was looking like a fragile nut. He evaded Trippier and then caught Walker unawares for his goal.
Wastefulness – Croatia were visibly panicked by England’s direct start and that immediacy seem to manifest in themselves as a lack of patience. Perisic was arguably the most guilty party early on, hitting hopeful shots that in truth did not have a chance at all. It comes with the territory in Perisic’s case, though.
Perisic finally showed what a nuisance he can be – it only took him until the second half of a World Cup semi-final. Benjamin Pavard in particular looks like a weakness for France down their right flank and, if Croatia stand a chance beating Les Bleus on Sunday, the Inter veteran must not revert to his early tournament form. Winner against Iceland aside, his all-round game had not been up to scratch.
RATING – 8/10