Moscow: Luka Modric brings serenity, Ivan Rakitic the cool. But at their best, Croatia epitomise a call to passion and combativeness. Arguably, no other player represents that better than Ivan Perisic. You can add Mario Mandzukic to the list, another member of the team who stood up tall when all seemed lost on Wednesday.
But it was man-of-the match Perisic who roused Croatia from dark corners. For about an hour, the team’s mind seemed to have left with the legs. Croatia’s World Cup campaign had stumbled from one recovery to another; for the third game running, Zlatko Dalic’s players found themselves trailing. Against England at the Luzhniki Stadium, that seemed a step too far. Chasing a game may suit Croatia but a fatigued mind was coming in their way.
Half an hour had passed before the Croats could even make their first foray of significance into the English box. The rest of the first half was spent spraying misplaced passes, losing possession, and running around merely to keep up with razor sharp England. The full-backs Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsaljko, the latter an injury doubt before the match, were run ragged and they lost the ball a combined 12 times in the opening 45 minutes. There was no suggestion that the tremendous performance in the 3-0 dismantling of Argentina, seen only three weeks ago, was still within Croatia’s range. Only an imprecise version of that display made an appearance.
A more probing start to the second half did suggest better concentration but a lack of direction still held Croatia back. That changed, however, once Perisic took charge. There had been hints of threat from Vrsaljko, his errors with the ball notwithstanding, in the opposition half but the danger did not materialise until his cross was stabbed home by the Internazionale midfielder.
The desire within Perisic to make a difference shone through as he stuck his leg out with impunity to beat Kyle Walker to the ball. This was the trigger for the Croatian charge, with the 29-year-old rampant. Minutes after scoring the goal, Perisic bamboozled his marker with a step over before striking the post. England were left shaking, just like the woodwork.
Perisic remained tremendous thereafter, making solo runs into the box and finishing the night with seven shots – four more than anyone else on the night. It was remarkable that he could sustain the intensity, the toll of Croatia’s previous adventures exacting a small price. The man from Omis had once said that, “When I sit on the bench, I’m dying.” It was obvious that he cherishes every opportunity to play as the insistence to make a difference burnt brightly within him.
Only Marcelo Brozovic covered more ground with the ball than Perisic, who ran 5.6 kilometres. The left-winger did not just do that for himself, but his teammates too. His assist for Mandzukic’s goal was the obvious highlight but his delivery into the box late in the first half of extra-time for the Juventus forward was even spectacular.
No longer was there just imprecision in Croatia’s play, generally. Rather, experiments with ideas took place which were only ruined by bodies that were not as sharp anymore. But Perisic’s teammates were showing no less determination to be on the pitch. It took Dalic 95 minutes to make the first change, even though he wished to alter his side earlier. The manager’s comments after the game revealed why that was the case.
“I wanted to make a substitution but nobody wanted to be subbed. But I have to tip my hat to doctors. Some players played with minor injuries and they would not have played if this was any other game. Two players had ‘half legs’. But they have shown character. When we started our preparations six weeks ago, I said it publicly that I cannot teach them football. I was in charge of other things and they have accepted that. Maybe initially they did not trust me fully but I have gained their trust… I have said it from the beginning, this tournament will be won by the team with the strongest character.”
Of that attribute, there are no doubts when one considers Croatia. Even when the resolve flags, the fans take it upon themselves to rouse the players. Time and again, the Croatian players ran to their supporters. Urging more from them, as if their work rate depended on the cheers they got. This ensured that the Vatreni were never lifeless, even when seemingly passive.
Twenty years ago, life had been sucked out of Croatia’s World Cup challenge when Lillian Thuram struck two unlikely goals to overturn the semi-final in Paris. It is a game which understandably stands out in Croatian memory; “We still talk about it” said coach Dalic here on Wednesday. Perisic’s mother is among those people who remember it; the family’s links with Sunday’s World Cup finalists affirmed because her son spent the formative years of his career in France.
“I spoke to my mother a few days ago and she said it is her dream to see Croatia play France in the final. Now her dream has come true,” said Perisic after accepting his man-of-the-match award here.
Croatia’s dreams can be fully realised on Sunday too. Although fears persist that fatigue will eventually have its say, Dalic is not putting anything beyond his players. He would, of course, prefer more serene progress in the final. “It is up to us – Why didn't we score earlier? Why didn't we finish the job in regulation time?” said the Croatian coach on Wednesday, after recalling his time as a spectator two decades ago when his country made their major breakthrough in international football.
But the easy route to success would not be like Croatia. Even though Perisic was the star of their latest triumph, another representative image stood out. England, a team which has bossed set-pieces in this World Cup, nearly took the lead in extra-time when John Stones headed a corner on target. But there was the suffering Vrsaljko, ready to head the ball away from the goal line; an epitome of the unyielding effort which marks out Croatia. Irrespective of the result on Sunday, there will be more of such heroism and bravery. This is why, after all, Croatia are a win away from their maiden World Cup triumph.
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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2018 09:48:54 IST