KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW—- Croatia did not even exist the last time England reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. Now, 28 years later, the Balkan nation barred the way. A 2-1 extra-time victory in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow sent Croatia through to Sunday’s Final back here against France. England head instead to Saturday’s third place play-off against Belgium in St Petersburg.
The opportunity appeared to be there for England to seize when Kieran Tripper put them ahead with a fourth-minute free kick. As time ran on, however, so they ran out of steam. Man of the match Ivan Perisic equalised deservedly in the 68th minute before Mario Mandzukic struck the Croat winner three minutes into the second half of the extra period.
Croatia’s story is remarkable. A nation of 4m people has produced two outstanding teams in little more than one generation. The first ended up third in their debut World Cup in 1998 and now a second has emulated that crop and reached the final itself for the first time.
England, when the pain has eased, will reflect on a worthy campaign which saw the third-youngest squad in the tournament carry them further than most had believed possible.
Manager Gareth Southgate’s men were quickest into their stride and not only played some of their best football of the finals but took the lead after only three minutes. Modric tripped Dele Alli just in front of the penalty box and Tripper curled a free kick over the wall and under the bar with a style and precision of which Cristiano Ronaldo would have been proud.
There could have been more against a badly rattled Croatia defence. John Stones headed high over from an Ashley Young corner on the left and Harry Maguire headed down down and just wide after a Trippier corner on the right.
Up to this point Croatia had been misplacing passes all over the field but they kept fighting doggedly to find their form. Ivan Perisic thumped a low drive wide and Ante Rebic had their first on-target shot well stopped by England keeper Jordan Pickford.
England responded with some lightning raids in which Raheem Sterling embarrassed the Croat defence but first Kane was flagged offside after he was played clear then Jessie Lingard was badly wide after being set up perfectly for the killing blow by Kane and Alli.
Croatia should have punished these misses and sloppy England play in defence just before halftime but Rakitic allowed himself to be dispossessed by Kyle Walker when he really should have scored.
Yellow cards were flashed by Turkish referee Cunet Cakir for Mandzukic and Walker after tetchy tangles early in a second half which Croatia began to command with Modric finding threatening space at last.
England had put together nothing of note when Croatia deservedly equalised 23 minutes into the second half. The goal had been coming. First Walker bravely blocked a goalbound drive from Perisic then the Internazionale winger stretched out a leg to jab home a right-wing cross from Sime Vrsaljko.
Croatia now had the bit between their teeth. Perisic hit a post then Ante Rebic, with the goal at his mercy, flapped the loose ball into Pickford’s arms. Mandzukic, at close range, was denied by the keeper and then Perisic lofted over the bar when Pickford miss-punched a clearance.
Kane was wide with a rare headed chance to a Trippier free kick in stoppage time but mostly England had been reduced to hacking desperately clear to survive into extra time. Remarkably it was Croatia, with two extra-time battles plus shootouts in their legs, who had were far livelier. England looked out on their feet.
Both sides brought on substitutes running into extra time in which England sought to regain their balance. They might even have regained the lead but John Stones’s header to Trippier’s right-wing corner was headed off the line by Vrsaljko.
Croatia hit back with a high-speed raid which saw Pickford save bravely at the feet of Mandzukic before the midpoint.
Mandzukic recovered to shoot Croatia ahead in the 108th minute. England failed to clear, Persic back-headed a loose ball into the penalty box and Mandzukic react faster than John Stokes to shoot past the stranded Pickford.
England, with all four substitutes on the pitch, were further handicapped when Trippier had to be carried off so Croatia duly saw out time to claim their place back in the Luzhniki against France . . . the team who beat their first golden generation in the semi-finals back in 1998.