Croatia are in dreamland after qualifying for their first ever final in the greatest show on earth as England were sent packing in the second semi-final of the 2018 Fifa World Cup at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow Wednesday.
Ivan Perisic canceled out an early English goal from Kieran Trippier and despite playing 120 minutes for the third successive game, it was Croatia who prevailed, thanks to a late winner by Mario Mandzukic in the 109th minute.
Croatia bettered their best ever previous finish from the 1998 edition in France when they lost to the Les Blues, the Vatreni's opposition in the grand finale Sunday at the same venue.
England in contrast will ponder what might have been after missing out on the opportunity of progressing to the final after 52 years when they lifted their only world title.
Croatia brought back two in-form players Sime Vrsaljko and Ante Rebic, despite the former suffering from knee problem and the latter nursing a neck injury, as manager Zlatko Dalic deployed the same line-up that thrashed Argentina 3-0 in the group stage.
Dalic kept faith with the 4-2-3-1 formation in the all-important game.
On the other hand, manager Gareth Southgate, who had no injury concerns in his side, named the same starting XI for the third game running. Southgate deployed the tried and tested 3-5-2 system.
From the starting whistle, the English dream started taking shape in front of 78,011 fans at the Luzhniki. The English fans were singing heartily, despite being outnumbered by the Croat supporters.
INTERVIEW // #CROENG— FIFA World Cup 🏆 (@FIFAWorldCup) July 11, 2018
"We've got to give great credit to #CRO. They've come through three huge ties, they've got some outstanding individual players and a great collective spirit" @England coach Gareth Southgate was gracious in defeat in Moscow this evening. #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/Ub1AxrCMVr
And the Three Lions drew first blood in just the fifth minute of the tie through a wonderful free-kick from Tottenham Hotspur full-back Trippier. Vatreni captain Luka Modric committed an unnecessary foul on Dele Alli just outside the box and Trippier duly beat goalkeeper Danijel Subasic to his left. This was England’s ninth set-piece goal out of their total of 12 in the Russia World Cup.
Four minutes later, England once again threatened to score after a counter-attack from a Croatia corner. Raheem Sterling broke through but there were enough men in black shirts at the back to deny England.
Moments later, last match’s scorer Harry Maguire almost gave England another headed goal but his effort went just wide of the far post.
A couple of minutes later, Inter Milan winger Perisic got a golden opportunity to bring parity for Croatia. After getting enough space and time, Perisic cut in from the right flank but his right-footed strike narrowly missed the post following a slight Kyle Walker deflection. Referee Cuneyt Cakir however, failed to call a corner.
The 2018 World Cup’s top-scorer with six goals, Harry Kane had an excellent chance to double their advantage when he was thwarted by Subasic in the 20th minute. The Spurs striker attempted the first shot from the right but a tight angle, along with an agile Subasic, meant Kane would not add to his handsome tally. From the following attempt, Kane was denied by Monaco keeper Subasic’s brilliant reflex.
In the 32nd minute, Eintracht Frankfurt winger Rebic, who was causing havoc more often than not, sent a dangerous low cross but it was cleared by John Stones just in time. From the return ball, Rebic fired at the post but Jordan Pickford was alert and caught the ball without fuss.
In the final minute of the first half, a casual approach by the English defence following a wonderful receive by Ivan Rakitic set up a nice opportunity, but Manchester City full-back Walker was there to save England with a covering challenge.
After resumption, both the teams tried to get hold of more possession, playing carefully. But it was Croatia who were the more desperate of the two sides.
In the 56th minute however, Man City attacker Sterling set one up for Jesse Lingard after getting the ball from Spurs forward Kane, but Domagoj Vida made a block and diverted the ball over for a corner.
Croatia once again came close to equalising in the 64th minute when Real Madrid talisman Modric whipped in a teasing cross into the box and Perisic was on his toes after a clearance from the English defence. Perisic pulled the trigger but Walker put his body on the line and made the block.
Croatia kept trying and finally got their reward in the 68th minute through who else but Perisic. Atletico Madrid full-back Vrsaljko got some space on the right flank and sent a cross to the centre of the box for Perisic, who ran forward and jumped in front of Walker before beating Everton keeper Pickford.
With the equaliser, Croatia became even more dangerous and almost got the lead just two minutes later. Stones failed to clear a dangerous ball forward and Perisic was lurking on the right. But this time around, his left-footed effort struck the post.
The moment when you book your country a place in the #WorldCupFinal!— FIFA World Cup 🏆 (@FIFAWorldCup) July 11, 2018
A goal that @MarioMandzukic9 and @HNS_CFF will never forget...
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The return ball was set up nicely for Rebic the winger but he did not get enough time to connect well as his effort went straight into the hands of Pickford.
Croatia could have sealed the game in the 82nd minute from a Marcelo Brozovic chip but Mandzukic was denied by Pickford.
England also got the chance to secure the win in the additional time of the second half but Kane missed a clear header from a Trippier free-kick from the right flank.
Both the teams got their share of chances in extra time.
In the 99th minute, Stones was denied a clear goal off the line when the Man City defender’s clinical header from a Tripper cross was cleared at just the right time by a desperate Vrsaljko.
In the additional time of the first-half extra time, Pickford denied Mandzukic, who received a dream pass from Perisic. Mandzukic shot at goal but the keeper was alert enough, spreading himself to make the vital block.
But then in the 109th minute, Mandzukic gave Croatia the lead after getting a loose ball off Stones. He struck from a close angle, sending Pickford the wrong way to make history for his nation.