Croatia yet again showed their magnificent resilience to come from behind and beat England 2-1 on Wednesday as Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time goal sent them into their first World Cup final and a possible revenge mission against France.
For the third successive knockout game the Croats trailed, this time to Kieran Trippier’s fifth-minute free kick, but they fought back once more to force extra time.
Ivan Perisic levelled after 68 minutes and, having got past Denmark and Russia on penalties, Croatia rolled up their sleeves for another extra period.
This time they did not need the shootout as, seemingly gaining in energy when they should have been on their knees, they took charge and won it when Mandzukic struck with a well-taken low shot in the 109th minute.
“This tournament will be won by a team with character. We were 1-0 down in three games in a row,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said.
“For Croatian football and the country this is history being written – I can’t think of a smaller country to reach the final.”
Croatia become the 13th team to contest the final and the first new finalists since Spain in 2010.
Since their dream run to the last four in 1998, their first tournament as an independent nation, Croatia have failed to get past the group stage, with every subsequent failing team being compared unfavourably with the heroes of France.
This side, however, have gone one better and will get the chance to avenge the defeat of 20 years ago when they face the French on Sunday at the Luzhniki Stadium.
“This has been the topic of discussion the past 20 years,” Dalic said. “Maybe that game has historical significance maybe, the dear Lord is giving us the chance to settle a score.”
That they will have that chance is due in part to their fitness, attitude and finishing quality but also to England’s failure to take full advantage of a totally dominant first half.
England, hoping for a first final appearance since winning their sole trophy in 1966, had got off to a flying start when Trippier curled a superb free kick into the top corner and they looked assured, relishing the space they were being given.
But Harry Kane shot weakly at Danijel Subasic and forced the rebound against a post, Raheem Sterling again failed to turn promise into substance and Jesse Lingard curled a golden chance wide.
Croatia had been desperately poor, a shadow of the team who carved Argentina apart in the group stage, but started to get a foothold in the game as the match rolled past the hour mark and Luka Modric’s influence grew.
England paid the price for those misses when Perisic showed great determination to get in front of Kyle Walker to meet a Sime Vrsaljko cross and though his boot was high and he threw an anxious glance at the referee, Walker was stooping and there were few complaints.
Perisic should have added another when given a great shooting chance but he cannoned the ball against a post as England’s defence began to lose shape.
It was a different game from then on, with Croatia suddenly playing with accuracy and purpose as England lost momentum and poise, though an off-colour Kane missed a chance to win it in stoppage time when he headed wide from a free kick.
England initially regrouped well in extra time with Marcus Rashford introducing some pace and Croatia were grateful for Vrsaljko’s goalline clearance of a John Stones header.
But it was Croatia who struck the killer blow when Perisic won a header on the edge of the box, England lost concentration and the ball dropped for Mandzukic, whose firm low finish beat Jordan Pickford.
England face a third-place playoff with Belgium on Saturday having exceeded many people’s expectations but aware that they let what might prove the be the best chance in a generation to end what is now 52 years of hurt.
“Nobody expected us to be in the semi-final but once we were here we really thought we could reach the final,” coach Gareth Southgate said.7
“When you have spells, you have to make them count. We probably needed that second goal. We should not forget the opportunity we had.”