CROATIA created history on Wednesday night when they reached the World Cup final for the first time with a stunning come-from-behind 2-1 triumph in extra-time against England at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. They now go one step further than the team of 1998 that couldn’t go beyond the last four.
Croatia return to the Luzhniki on Sunday to face France, the team that incidentally ended their challenge two decades ago.
They almost made a habit of not making things easy for themselves at this World Cup. With their nerve-shredding shootout triumph over Russia in the quarter-finals, they joined Argentina as only the second team to win successive World Cup games on penalties.
This time, they ensured there wouldn’t be a third shootout win in a row, but their semi-final triumph was no less dramatic.
Mario Mandzukic scored the decisive goal in the 109th minute, getting on the end of a headed flick from Ivan Perisic, who had scored the leveller for the Croats, and flashing a low shot across Jordan Pickford and into the back of the net to leave England waiting for their first World Cup final appearance since 1966, when they recorded their sole triumph at football’s showpiece tournament.
England had got off to a dream start when Kieran Trippier scored with a majestic free kick just five minutes into the game, getting the ball over the wall, but crucially getting it to dip at the perfect time to leave Danijel Subasic flapping at thin air.
It set up the game perfectly for a team like England who like to play on the counter. The draining shootout wins in the previous two matches meant Croatia seemed to be lacking energy.
Ante Rebic had a couple of moments, but otherwise Croatia never really offered much as a response to falling behind. England, though, could have put it to bed before the end of the first half. The width of the post denied Harry Kane the chance to extend his lead atop the goal-scoring charts with a seventh goal at the tournament while Jesse Lingard shot wide when a gaping hole had appeared in the Croatian defence.
Croatia were better in the second half, even though the game wasn’t opening up for them. They had come back from behind in each of their last two games and they did so here again with 22 minutes to go.
Sime Vrsjalko curled in a cross from the right and Perisic nipped in, over Kyle Walker, and stuck out a left boot to direct it in.
The leveller energised Croatia and moments later Perisic saw a shot cannon off the post. England were being made to look like mere bystanders as Croatia poured forward.
The goal they were searching for, though, never came. For a third straight game, they were going to play 120 minutes.
England’s 52 years of hurt have now been prolonged to 56.
Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2018