Croatia showed incredible endurance, physical strength and will, defeating England 2-1 in extra time thanks to a 109th minute goal by Mario Mandzukic.
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In the 4th minute, Luka Modric ran into Dele Alli and gave England a free kick in a very dangerous position. Kieran Trippier took it and scored with a magnificent shot in the upper corner. Another set piece goal for Gareth Southgate’s lads and a perfect start for his team. Croatia was rather modest in its attempts to get a goal which would tie the game. Raheem Sterling was causing problems with his speed, especially for the much slower Dejan Lovren.
In the 30th minute, Harry Kane had an open position to increase England’s lead. His initial left-footed shot was saved by Subasic. The ball rebounded back to Kane near the goal line, he took a moment to move it back up and improve his angle and then made another attempt at goal which bounced off Subasic, into the post and away from goal. A world-class striker such as Kane should’ve scored. Afterwards, it turned out that the assistant referee raised his offside flag, but replays showed he was wrong.
In the 36th minute, Jesse Lingard had time to set his aim and fire a shot from just outside Croatia’s box. Unfortunately for England fans, he was inaccurate. The tempo of the match slowed down in the last five minutes and after Croatia made one more push, Cuneyt Cakir blew the half-time whistle.
The first 20 minutes of the second half belonged to Dalic’s men, at least possession-wise. They were struggling to create chances, with their actions ending in aimless crosses far too often. In the 68th minute, Sime Vrsaljko’s cross looked similar like all the rest of them. However, Ivan Perisic put his leg where Kyle Walker put his head and beat Pickford to give Croatia the equalizer. Perisic did raise his leg high, but Cekir decided it wasn’t high enough to disallow the goal. A couple of minutes later, a mistake at the back nearly cost The Three Lions. The ball came to Perisic, who made a dribble and struck the ball with his stronger left foot. Unfortunately for him and Croatia fans around the globe, he hit the far post. The rebound came to Rebic, who wasn’t ready for it and sent it right at Pickford.
In the 74th minute, Southgate made his first switch, replacing Raheem Sterling with Marcus Rashford. In the 83rd minute, Brozovic found Mandzukic, whose powerful shot was easily deflected by Pickford. A minute later, the England goalkeeper made a poor attempt at punching the ball out. It landed at Perisic’s feet, who first-timed it over the cross bar. Overall, the game was very similar to Denmark versus Croatia, only this time, Croatia played the role of Denmark, while England was Croatia. Southgate’s players were losing the midfield battle, thus saw very little of the ball in the second half. After three minutes of added time, we were in for 30 more.
Danny Rose came in for Ashley Young at the beginning of the first extra frame. Ivan Strinic, who had cramps at the end of regular time, fell on the ground and couldn’t continue. In the 94th minute, he was substituted by Josip Pivaric. Next, Eric Dier came in for Jordan Henderson. Sime Vrsaljko saved Croatia from going down in the 99th minute, when he blocked John Stones’ header from the goal line. Ante Rebic was the next player to leave the pitch. Andrej Kramaric came in his stead.
England’s attackers were simply not getting the balls they needed in order to create threats. In the last minute of the first 15 minutes, Pickford prevented Mandzukic from giving his team the lead with a save from two meters out. The Everton keeper caught Mandzukic while making the save and Croatia’s forward limped to the sidelines after Cakir signalled the end of the first 15 minutes.
In the 108th minute, Brozovic had a shot go slightly wide following a corner kick. Moments later, Perisic sent a header back to the box. Stones lost track of Mario Mandzukic, who scored with his left foot to the delight of his teammates. Unbelievable! In their third straight extra time, the Croatians still had the strength to not only be competitive, but be better. Jamie Vardy replaced Kyle Walker soon after the goal was scored. Mandzukic was exhausted and had to be replaced in the 115th minute.
Zlatko Dalic decided to strengthen his defense by introducing Vedran Corluka to the pitch. Trippier also complained of a muscle injury. Since Southgate had used up all of his substitutions, England were a man down in the last five minutes. Milan Badelj for Luka Modric was the game’s last change. England was powerless until the end. The Croatian players miraculously survived another extra-time game and reached a World Cup final for the first time in their history. There, they’ll meet the team which eliminated them in the semi-final of 1998 – France.