FIFA World Cup 2018: Uninventive England fall to Croatia's resilience, botch massive opportunity to make final

It’s coming home.

What is it? The England team. Or it could also be a plane transporting the England players.

But in all seriousness, England aren’t going home until the third-place playoff match against Belgium in a couple of days’ time. And having bored us the first time around in the final group stage match, the upcoming third-place playoff is also bound to be not as serious as a World Cup final, had they both qualified.

In a battle of footballing themes this world cup, the tireless “extra-time” Croatia beat “set-piece” England to book their spot against France in the showpiece match to be held on Sunday. England had a great chance to put the match to bed early on in the first half, but they faded away as the match progressed, and the better side over the course of the match progressed to the final. It will be the resilient Croatian team that will stay back for the final against France in Moscow.

England's players react after their defeat in the semi-final match against Croatia. AFP

England's players react after their defeat in the semi-final match against Croatia. AFP

With an expectant nation behind them, England lined up in their familiar 3-5-2 formation with the same 11 names: Jordan Pickford in goal; Kyle Walker, John Stones, and Harry Maguire in defence; Ashley Young and Keiran Trippier serving as wingbacks; Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard in the midfield, and Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane up front. In spite of missing a lot of chances, Sterling remained in Gareth Southgate’s first team and Jamie Vardy stayed on the bench.

Up against them were the indefatigable Croatian team looking to do better than the feats of a golden generation of their own — the team that claimed the third place at the 1998 World Cup. That team, consisting of the Golden Boot winning Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and others, nearly made it to the final but were thwarted by France and Lilian Thuram.

This generation, having been inspired by the team of 1998, were looking for an opportunity of a lifetime to cross the English hurdle and avenge that defeat on Sunday. Zlatko Dalic lined up his wards in a 4-2-3-1 formation: Danijel Subasic in goal; a flat back four of Sime Vrsaljko, Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren and Ivan Strinic; Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Rakitic providing the muscle, and Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic the guile in midfield; and Mario Mandzukic playing the lone striker up front. They were also extra motivated for the encounter due to a lack of respect shown by the English pundits, as recounted by Modric.

And it was Modric who inadvertently played a part in the England opener. After a spin, Lingard passed to Alli on the right hand channel, and the Croatian lynchpin brought down Alli at the edge of the penalty area. Given England’s prowess from the dead ball in this tournament, this wasn’t probably the best idea. Trippier curled a great fre-kick into the top right-hand corner to put England ahead. This was the ninth goal that England had scored from set pieces in the tournament.

Rattled by the strike, Croatia launched into an attack of their own a couple of minutes later, but Pickford instead took control of the ball and put England through on an attack on their own. Sterling almost latched on to the long ball, but the Croatian keeper was alert to defuse the situation. Two minutes later, it was Vrsaljko who had to play his part to dent England’s latest chance. And four minutes further, Croatia looked vulnerable on an England corner. In the first 15 minutes, it was England that had the better chances.

Around the stroke of the half hour, Kane missed two chances (off the same move) to double England’s advantage. The nature of the misses will no doubt come back to haunt him in the years to come. On the left hand side, Alli moved around and passed the ball right to Lingard, who took a couple of touches to steady himself at the edge of the box and laid a delicious ball on to the foot of Kane, who had timed his run to perfection. With only the goalkeeper to beat, Kane inexplicably could only muster a tame shot at Subasic. The rebound fell kindly to Kane at an even more acute angle, but this time, his shot hit the post. The whole of Croatia would have no doubt skipped several heartbeats through this passage of play. The rest of the half passed without any major incidents.

In the second half, Croatia were on the ascend and probed the length and breadth of the pitch, furiously looking for the equaliser. Though they were a team that had faced the rigours of extra-time in the previous matches, they weren’t too keen to do so for the third time and wanted to finish it within the 90 minutes. Croatia finally got their reward in the 68th minute when the right back Vrsaljko whipped in a delicious cross from the right which was met by a high boot from Perisic, who was able to get ahead of a diving Walker.

The goal invigorated Croatia, who further laid siege to the England goal. Four minutes later, Perisic showed Walker his dancing feet and fired a low shot which cannoned against the England post and fell in the path of Rebic, who could not do better than fire a tame shot straight to Pickford. This was a massive let off for the Three Lions. There were half chances galore at both ends and Croatia pushed hard for a winner in normal time, but it wasn’t to be. For the third successive knockout match, Croatia faced extra-time.

Tired yet resilient, Croatia soldiered along in extra-time. England had their best chance in the 99th minute when a Trippier corner found Stones in the box, and the ball looked destined for the net but was cleared off the line by Vrsaljko.

At the other end, the ebullient Perisic ran down the left wing and produced a magical low cross that was almost converted by Mandzukic, but his shot was blocked by a brave Pickford at a range that was close enough to make families squirm uncomfortably. And in the 109th minute, England looked downcast. Perisic beat Trippier to a high ball at the edge of the area and headed the ball behind. The England defence was switched off, but Mandzukic wasn’t; he reacted first to the loose ball, slammed a left foot shot across Pickford to get the winner, and broke millions of English hearts. Desperately looking for an equaliser, England looked bereft of ideas. Wild protestations for a corner in the 118th minute represented their dependency on the set-piece to ping the opposition net, but this type of appeal isn’t in VAR’s jurisdiction.

Overall, this result for England represents a major progress for England in terms of tournament play. When the dust settles, history will remember this uninventive England side as a major beneficiary of the draw who botched a huge chance to make the final.

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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2018 15:00 PM

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