When Croatia and England were set up to meet in this summer’s second World Cup semi-final, both teams sensed a real opportunity to progress to the final. Either qualifying was always going to be a fantastic achievement, with Croatia having never reached a World Cup final and England having only done so once, 52 years ago. The English media, full of praise for the team for the first tournament in decades, fancied their chances against Zlatko Dalic’s men, while the latter saw a real opportunity to progress to the last match against France. Whatever was going to happen, this was a match being played by two nations incredibly proud of their teams.
Croatia would ultimately win the tie, sending England to Saturday’s third-place playoff against Belgium. It was a close-fought battle really, with England having taken an early lead by way of a wonderful Kieran Trippier free kick. Some may have sensed that the goal had come a tad too early, but when England continued to dominate the first half hour or so many felt their place against France was all but booked. After the half hour, however, Croatia’s midfield started having their say. They were not happy to just sit back and wait for the game to be played around them – they were going to get involved. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic decided that destiny was within their own hands, and so they frankly grasped the game by the scruff of the neck and took control. And boy, how they took control.
Ivan Perisic pulled Croatia level with 22 minutes to go, but by then Croatia had long-since been in the ascendancy. England played well when they had the ball, but didn’t see quite enough of it. Croatia’s relentless pressure eventually paved the way for Perisic to nip in and fire home the equaliser, and neither side was able to break the deadlock again for the remainder of the normal 90 minutes. In extra time, England did have a chance or two but nothing too golden-edged, and Croatia began to look the stronger side once again. If a team were going to score, it did seem like it would be Croatia. So too it turned out, when Mario Mandzukic nipped in behind England’s defence to blast home across Jordan Pickford’s goal and into the back of the net to send half the stadium into absolute euphoria.
Modric said after the game that the English media underestimated their chances, claiming they showed a “lack of respect” after it was implied they would be a tired team after going to two consecutive penalty shootouts in the last few days. He said: “We showed again we were not tired. We dominated the game physically, mentally, in all aspects.” It would be hard to argue with that on the whole, especially once they found their footing around the half hour mark. England fans were left devastated, but for this history-making Croatia team they are now just 90 minutes away from the biggest achievement in the history of their national football team. It should be a great final.
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