By Joe CallaghanSpecial to the Star
Wed., July 11, 2018
MOSCOW—Call them the extra specialists. Croatia roared back in the face of England’s irresistible dream to shatter Gareth Southgate’s side and make it to a first ever World Cup final as they won a breath-taking semifinal in Moscow.
While England dominated the early exchanges and looked to have one foot in Sunday’s decider against France, Croatia adjusted, battled back into the contest and for the third straight game, went beyond 90 minutes to claim glory, winning 2-1 after extra time at a pulsating Luzhniki Stadium.
Kieran Trippier’s delightful free-kick had given England the lead just five minutes in and their belief soared again. But they were wasteful with the chances that followed. As Croatia clawed their way into things, England fell further back and offered up chances. Ivan Perisic took one on 68 minutes and the sides stayed level to the end of normal time.
It stayed that way until the second half of extra time when this remarkably resilient Croatian side rose again. English concentration fell asunder and Mario Mandzukic stole in to fire his side ahead. They clung on confidently and even though their legs must be beyond weary, they will return back here on Sunday night and face France in what shapes to be an unmissable decider.
Unlike the previous night when empty seats in Saint Petersburg had been a signal of a night devoid of atmosphere, things crackled from the kick-off here.
Trippier raised the roof just five minutes in. Modric had clumsily tried to chase Dele Alli back and gave away a free kick in a dangerous area. Trippier proved just how dangerous, whipping a delicious effort up and over the wall that had rippled the net before Danijel Subasic got anywhere near it.
There’d been a glut of set-piece goals at this World Cup but few were as easy on the eye. Croatia, meanwhile looked a shadow of themselves as they tried to drag themselves into it. Passes were sprayed straight out of play. Crosses into the middle found only emptiness and at the back they looked ever vulnerable.
England could and should have been further ahead. On the half hour, Harry Kane had two bites at it, but inexplicably coughed up both, squeezing the second shot against the post when he should have scored. Jesse Lingard flashed wide when presented with another great opportunity. You wondered if England would live to regret the spurned opportunities.
Croatia was always likely to find a period of dominance and as their passing game got somewhat tighter after the break, their fans began to believe again. A team that has had to fight back twice already in the knock-out stages, they can battle. But force wasn’t going to be enough as Modric, Ivan Rakitic and the tireless Ante Rebic tried to stretch England.
The equalizer came from an area of English strength. For an hour and more they had comfortably mopped up Croatian crosses but when Sime Vrsaljko went deep to the back post both Lingard and Kyle Walker fell asleep and Perisic darted in to flick a beautiful finish past Jordan Pickford. The Croatian end erupted.
Just two minutes later they could have been ahead as Perisic crashed a shot against the post. England was wobbling and it wasn’t pretty. It wouldn’t get much better looking as they largely clung on until the end of normal time but there was still time for Kane to spurn a great chance to steal victory when he nodded an injury-time free kick from Trippier just wide.
It went to extra time and tired limbs made for a more disjointed game. Subs came in and there were still chances. John Stones saw a header cleared off the line while Pickford bravely blocked a Mandzukic effort.
Mandzukic would have his moment shortly after the break, taking advantage of lax English concentration to fire Croatia ahead.
England tried to rise again but lost Trippier to injury and down to 10 men, never truly threatened the equalizer they needed to keep their dream alive. After a classic, Croatia’s reverie rolls on.