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.
FINAL ATTRACTED 1.12 BILLION VIEWERS! Russia 2018 is best watched World Cup ever, says FIFA
A record audience of more than 3.5 billion people watched this year’s World Cup in Russia, with the final between France and Croatia attracting 1.12 billion viewers, world soccer’s governing body said on Friday.
FIFA said 3.572 billion viewers – more than half of the global population aged four and over – watched some part of the official coverage, which was broadcast live in every territory worldwide from June 14 to July 15.
The global in-home TV audience watching at least one minute of the coverage accounted for almost 3.3 billion viewers, a 2.2 per cent increase on the 2014 edition hosted in Brazil, according to FIFA’s audit of audience data published on Friday.
A further 309.7 million caught the action on digital platforms, public viewing areas or in bars and restaurants.
France’s 4-2 victory in the final, which gave them their second World Cup title following their triumph in 1998, was the most watched game of the competition.
It was followed by England’s semi-final defeat to Croatia and the other last-four clash between France and Belgium.
“These figures really do support the claim that Russia 2018 was the best World Cup ever,” said FIFA’s chief commercial officer, Philippe Le Floc’h.
“The fact that half the world’s population watched the FIFA World Cup reflects not just the high quality of our award-winning live coverage, but also that fans everywhere are insatiable for world-class football.”
The World Cup coverage reached around 1.6 billion individuals in Asia, with 655.7 million viewers (18.4 per cent of the global total) in China, who failed to qualify for the tournament.
The 2022 edition of World Cup will be held in Qatar.
HE HAS A VERY GOOD RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILDREN! Mbappe donates £384,000 World Cup 2018 earnings to charity
French professional footballer, Kylian Mbappé, will donate money earned from featuring in the 2018 World Cup tournament in Russia to a sports charity that works with disabled and hospitalised children, Premiers de Cordee.
According to Sports Illustrated, the 19-year-old who plays as a forward for Paris Saint-Germain was paid £17,000 per game and pocketed £265,000 for being part of the team who won the tournament.
Speaking to Le Parisien, Premier de Cordee charity general manager, Sebastian Ruffin said:
“Kylian, he’s a great person.
“When his schedule allows it, he intervenes for us with pleasure.
“He has a very good [relationship] with children, he always finds the right [words] to encourage them.
“I sometimes even feel that [he] takes more pleasure to play with the kids than the kids themselves.”
Mbappe, who joined PSG for a fee of around £166m from Monaco after a season-long loan, was named Young Player of the World Cup.
Mbappe became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958.
TENS OF THOUSANDS! Croatians give heroes’ welcome to World Cup squad
Tens of thousands of Croatians gave a heroes’ welcome to their team in Zagreb on Monday after the squad returned from Russia following their World Cup final defeat.
A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 thronged the capital’s main square to see the players, led by captain and World Cup Golden Ball winner Luka Modric, parade through the streets on an open-top bus.
Cheering fans, many waving flags and wearing the famous red and white shirt of Croatia, held up banners celebrating the runners-up after their gallant 4-2 defeat by France.
“This is how Croatia is loved,” read one banner. Another said: “We are few, but we believed and that is enough”.
Many even skipped work to celebrate the team reaching their first ever World Cup final.
“I closed my office to welcome our heroes. I put a sign up reading ‘Today, July 16, 2018’, office closed due to our Vatreni (‘the Fiery Ones’ in Croatian),” doctor Sanja Klajic told AFP.
Earlier noisy fans awaited their side’s appearance by singing a popular song “Play on my Croatia, when I see you my heart is on fire!” while watching the plane carrying the team progress to the capital on a giant TV screen.
When the plane, accompanied by military jets and emblazoned with the logo “Bravo Vatreni” flew overhead the crowd cheered and chanted “Hands up, hands up!”.
After landing at the city’s airport around 3:25 pm (1325 GMT), the players emerged to shrieks from fans at the terminal.
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