Buenos Aires Times

sports WORLD CUP: RUSSIA 2018

Croatia knock out England to set up final clash with France

Croatians come from behind to reach final of World Cup for the first time. France lie in wait in Moscow this Sunday.

Wednesday 11 July, 2018
England's goalkeeper Jordan Pickford reacts after losing the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, while Croatia captain Luka Modric leads the celebrations.
England's goalkeeper Jordan Pickford reacts after losing the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, while Croatia captain Luka Modric leads the celebrations. Foto:AFP-Jewel Samad

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Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal deep in extra time as Croatia beat England 2-1 in a gripping World Cup semi-final in Moscow on Wednesday to set up a final date with France.

The Juventus forward netted in the 109th minute to complete a remarkable comeback from a shattered Croatian team and take the small nation of little more than four million people into the World Cup final for the first time in their short history.

Kieran Trippier's magnificent early free-kick had seemingly set England on course to reach their first final since they lifted the trophy on home soil back in 1966.

But it wasn't to be, as Croatia came roaring back in the second half and equalised through Ivan Perisic before somehow finding the energy to win despite being taken to extra time for the third time in 10 days.

The biggest winners of the night could well be France, who have had an extra day's rest for Sunday's final after edging out Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday.

That will not matter too much right now for Croatia, who are the smallest nation to make it to the final since Uruguay back in 1950.

English pain

England had been the ones hoping to make history, in what was their first appearance in the semi-finals in 28 years.

Then they were beaten on penalties by West Germany. Having ended their famous penalty curse by beating Colombia in a shoot-out in the last 16, they might have fancied repeating here.

But Croatia, having won on penalties against Denmark and Russia in the last two rounds, saw the game out, dousing the World Cup dream of Gareth Southgate's side that had gone from the improbable to the possible over the last month in Russia.

Southgate stuck with the same starting line-up as that which eased past Sweden in the quarter-finals, while Inter Milan's Marcelo Brozovic replaced Andrej Kramaric in the Croatian line-up.

Quick out the blocks

They were looking to the inspirational Luke Modric to control the game, but instead it was he who gave away the early free-kick from which Trippier put England ahead.

It was a fantastic curling effort from 25 yards from the Tottenham Hotspur full-back, and England's first goal direct from a free-kick at the World Cup since David Beckham against Ecuador in 2006.

England could not have imagined a better start. Croatia were stunned, and Ivan Rakitic, usually so accomplished, was especially off his game.

Zlatko Dalic's side did gradually grow into the contest, but they could still be relieved to go in at half-time only one goal down, especially as Harry Kane was denied by a combination of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and the woodwork on the half-hour mark.

Croatia hung on and it was to their immense credit that they turned the tide after the break in what developed into an epic encounter.

Shooting towards the end of the Luzhniki Stadium where most of their fans were gathered, they equalised in the 68th minute, as Sime Vrsaljko crossed from the right and Perisic stole in front of the stooping Kyle Walker to score with his left foot.

Having looked so comfortable earlier, England's young side were rattled, and they were lucky not to go behind soon after as Perisic sent a low shot across Jordan Pickford and off the far post.

Unable to get the second goal while they were on top, Croatia were forced into extra time again.

Vrsaljko cleared a John Stones header away from in front of the line, but England had Pickford to thank for a brilliant save as Mandzukic connected with a devilish Perisic cross.

It was a wonder the Juventus forward did not break a limb as Pickford crunched into him.

He managed to carry on after treatment, and he was on hand to sweep the ball low past Pickford after Perisic's header back into the area caught the England defence on the hop to finally decide a brilliant contest.

'Gutted'

England captain Harry Kane could not hide his desperate disappointment after his side's 2-1 extra-time defeat against Croatia in the semi-finals of the World Cup in Moscow on Wednesday.

"We're gutted. It hurts, it hurts a lot," Kane said after the match at the Luzhniki Stadium. "It's going to hurt for a while of course. We can hold our heads up high. It's been a fantastic journey, we got further than anyone else thought we would have," he added.

"It's been great to get to this stage and we know we've done everyone proud but we wanted to go on and win it," Kane added.

"We thought we were just good enough, we thought we could have done that. But we've fallen just a bit short. It hurts. I don't know what else to say."

French joy

France reached the final for the third time in their history on Tuesday afternoon when a second-half header from Samuel Umtiti gave the 1998 champions a 1-0 victory against Belgium in Saint Petersburg.

The win sent tens of thousands of French people pouring onto the Champs-Élysées avenue in Paris in scenes of joy last seen when France won the World Cup two decades ago. In delirious scenes in Paris, fans let off fire crackers and released smoke flares.

Despite the much-vaunted attack of teenager Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, France's defence proved the difference as they shut down Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku and they showed they will be hard to beat on Sunday.

French President Emmanuel Macron was in the stadium to watch the match and raised his arms in delight when France took the lead. 

France coach Didier Deschamps said he was delighted to have the chance to bury the pain of the Euro 2016 final, which his side lost on home soil to Portugal.

"Finals have to be won because we have still not got over the one we lost two years ago," he said.

It was a painful defeat for Belgium, foiled at the semi-final for the second time in their history, as the clock ticks on their so-called "golden generation" of players.

Hazard shone at times but Kevin De Bruyne was quiet and Manchester United striker Lukaku was a shadow of the player he had been earlier in the tournament, even though Belgium enjoyed most of the possession.

History-makers?

Prior to the England-Croatia clash, England coach Gareth Southgate had spoken of his young side "breaking down barriers" in Russia after their biggest World Cup win and first penalty shoot-out triumph – but it is Croatia who have forced their way into a relatively closed shop, becoming as just the 13th different country to progress to the final in 88 years.

Spain, the 2010 champions, were the last first-time finalists in what is now the 21st edition of the competition.

It is an achievement all the more remarkable for a country with a population of little more than four million. Only Uruguay – who lifted the inaugural title in 1930, and again in 1950 – has a smaller population among all World Cup finalists.

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