Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal deep in extra time as Croatia beat England 2-1 in an utterly 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 11 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.
“It was a very difficult game, we all know what was at stake, how important a semi-final is for a small country such as Croatia,” said man-of-the-match Perisic.
“We started slowly but we showed our character, just as in the previous two knockout rounds when we were one goal down in both matches. We were not that resilient in the past.”
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 shootout in the last 16, they might have fancied repeating that 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 past month in Russia.
“We’re gutted. It hurts, it hurts a lot,” said captain Harry Kane. “We can hold our heads up high. It’s been a fantastic journey, we got further than anyone else thought we would have.”
– England’s dream start –
Croatia were looking to the inspirational Luka Modric to control the game, but instead it was he who gave away the early free-kick from which Trippier put England ahead in the fifth minute.
It was a fantastic curling effort from 25 yards from the Tottenham Hotspur full-back, and England could not have imagined a better start.
Croatia were stunned, with Ivan Rakitic, usually so accomplished, 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 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 at the Luzhniki Stadium.
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 when 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, finally deciding a brilliant contest.