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England’s World Cup dream dashed as Croatia win semi-final in extra time

Croatian players celebrate their win against England this morning

By Daniel Taylor at the Luzhniki Stadium in Russia

July 12,2018: 2.45pm (The Guradian): It was like watching a beautiful painting being ripped up in front of your eyes.

England’s dream of making it to their first World Cup final for more than half a century was over and in the desperate moments after the final whistle, as the losing players wandered aimlessly around the pitch, almost zombie-like in their desolation, it was impossible not to wonder whether that will be a lifetime regret.

England players console each other after their 2-1 loss to Croatia this morning

England players console each other after their 2-1 loss to Croatia this morning

Yet they could not add a second goal when they were on top and the game swung in Croatia’s favour once Ivan Perisic had scored an improvisational equaliser in the 68th minute, showing great determination to beat Trippier and Kyle Walker to a cross from the right and twisting mid-air to turn an awkward volley, almost head-height, past Jordan Pickford.

England still managed to toy with our emotions, as they often do, and it needed a goal-line clearance to prevent Stones heading in a corner in the first period of extra time.

By that point, however, it was the first time in the entire tournament when England have repeatedly looked vulnerable at the back.

Even before the additional 30 minutes, Perisic struck the post with a low, diagonal shot and Ante Rebic should have done better with the rebound. It was not an onslaught, but it was not far off.

Croatia had enough of the ball in dangerous areas to think they might have completed the recovery before the end of normal time.

All of which was tremendously disappointing from an English perspective bearing in mind the story of the first half, the energy they put into quelling the influence of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic and the euphoria, only five minutes in, when Trippier directed a free-kick over a six-man defensive wall, applying just the right blend of curl and dip for the ball to beat Danijel Subasic and arc beneath the crossbar. As devastated as Trippier was, he will return to England as one of the authentic stars of this tournament.

Unfortunately for England, Southgate acknowledged their inexperience might have counted against them during that inevitable period in the second half when Croatia committed more men forward in their search for an equaliser.

Too often, an England player would rush or miscue a clearance. “Game management,” the coaches call it – and England lacked it. The shape of the team started to unravel and, though Harry Kane will almost certainly win the Golden Boot, the paradox is that he has found it difficult to get behind opposition defences.

Raheem Sterling was substituted after a so-so performance and Jesse Lingard will not easily forget the first‑half chance he put wide. Kane’s best chance was given incorrectly as offside and, though it is difficult sometimes to second-guess VAR, maybe it would have stood if he could have put the ball in from close range rather than hitting the post. Hypothetical now: England will never know.

Instead it was Mandzukic with the killer moment, leaving Southgate to talk about the “hardened warriors” in the Croatia team. Stones lost concentration for a split-second and the striker rifled in a left-foot shot.

Was there still time for England to save themselves? Could they rouse themselves one last time? Yes and no. The momentum had swung and England’s players will never forget the night they had the lead in a World Cup semi-final and blew it.

“We all feel the pain,” Southgate said. Football’s not coming home, after all.

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