England saw its best chance of ending several generations’ worth of World Cup pain slip away on Wednesday night, as Croatia fought back for a 2-1 win in extra time, securing a spot against France in Sunday’s final.
Englandhad not been to a semifinal since 1990, and not reached the title game since it won soccer’s greatest prize for the only time back in 1966. This, for much of a wild and rugged evening at Luzhniki Stadium, looked like the time. Until it wasn’t.
Croatia was one of the most impressive teams of the group stage before surviving two penalty shootouts to reach this point. Its technical ability and fierce resiliency allowed it to capitalize on England’s nervous lapses when victory was in sight.
Mario Mandzukic got the winner in injury time to put Croatia, with previously a tournament-best semifinal in 1998 to its name, one game away from winning it all.
England made a blistering start, surging into an early lead thanks to a stunning free-kick from Kieran Trippier. Trippier struck a sweet effort over the Croatia wall in the fifth minute, guiding it perfectly past goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and into the top scorer.
Dele Alli had won the free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, when his powerful forward run was abruptly stopped by a Luka Modric foul.
As the first half progressed, and with England dominant, the opportunity was there to put the game away. A second goal would likely have done it. Kane had the best shot at it, finding himself through on goal, firing at Subasic, then knocking a second effort against the post.
But the game opened up in the second half and while England was enjoying plenty of possession it was giving Croatia the kind of space it enjoys.
With 68 minutes gone, things were level. Ivan Perisic made a strong run in the box and raised his left cleat high to deflect a cross past Jordan Pickford and into the net. Suddenly, England was rattled and Croatia was resurgent. Perisic was mightily unlucky not to add to his tally when his angled shot beat Pickford but cannoned off the post.
Croatia had already gone into extra time in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals, prevailing on penalty kicks on both occasions. England had also won on penalties against Colombia in the second round.
Extra time arrived again and was predictably tense. Mandzukic had Croatia’s best chance at the end of the first additional period, but Pickford blocked his shot from close range. But Mandzukic would not be denied just after the break. John Stones was slow to pick up Mandzukic’s run onto a Perisic header, and Pickford was beaten by a left-foot shot that sealed England’s fate and sent Croatia into dreamland.