Mario Mandzukic’s goal in the 109th minute propelled Croatia to its first World Cup final in its young history, breaking the hearts of England with a 2-1 victory Wednesday in Moscow.
The Vatreni, whose only previous semifinal appearance came in their maiden World Cup appearance in 1998, showed plenty of courage in advancing to Sunday’s final against France while playing their third straight match that went into extra time.
Unlike the victories over Denmark and Russia, Croatia this time avoided going to penalties as its veteran savvy found the half-second of advantage against the young Three Lions that made the difference.
The game-winning play started when Kyle Walker popped his clearance only as far as the left elbow of the penalty area. Ivan Perisic, who scored the equalizer in the 68th minute, won a 50/50 ball against Kieran Trippier and headed it backward towards goal.
Mandzukic ghosted behind John Stones and lashed a left-footed shot from the elbow of the six-yard box across Jordan Pickford and inside the right post. England could not create a threatening chance in the final 11 minutes, its chances literally hamstrung when Trippier came up lame in the 115th minute and played the final five minutes and stoppage time with 10 men having used all four of their substitutions.
The final attempt came with a free kick 35 yards from Croatia’s goal, but Marcus Rashford’s chip did not go deep enough to draw Croatia keeper Danjiel Subasic off his line as Perisic was able to bundle it away from danger before referee Cuneyt Cakir blew his whistle.
The Vatreni will stay in Moscow to face Les Bleus, their first World Cup encounter since France eliminated them in the 1998 semifinals in Saint-Denis with a 2-1 victory. Croatia will be seeking its first victory over France as the countries are meeting for the sixth time.
Though denied their first World Cup final since winning it on home soil in 1966, the Three Lions will return to England with their heads held high after Saturday’s third-place match versus Belgium in St. Petersburg.
Gareth Southgate’s team — the second-youngest behind Nigeria in Russia — came of age behind talisman Harry Kane, who is likely to bring home the Golden Boot as he leads with six goals, and keeper Jordan Pickford, who cemented himself as England’s No. 1 going forward with commanding performances between the sticks in the three knockout matches.
England has scored a record nine goals off set pieces at this World Cup, accounting for 75 percent of its goals. Trippier added to that ledger with his well-taken goal five minutes after the opening kickoff.
With only five players on the roster born before England’s previous semifinal appearance in 1990, Southgate’s young players continued to prefer writing their own narrative as opposed to looking back to the half-century of almosts and never-weres. The Three Lions got off to a dream start in the fifth minute through Trippier.
Luka Modric chopped down Dele Alli just above the penalty area, 25 yards out and virtually straight down the middle. Trippier struck a quality curling effort with his right foot, over Dejan Lovren in Croatia’s wall and in the upper right corner as Subasic had no chance in stopping it.
The Spurs wide back became the third England player to score in a World Cup semifinal, joining Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker. The Three Lions continued on the front foot, with Raheem Sterling again causing an opposing backline issues with his pace while failing to create any scoring chances for himself.
England earned another pair of corner kicks inside the quarter-hour. Maguire was able to get his meaty forehead to both, but they failed to result in a goal as each went wide of the right post. His second effort was the better of the two, bouncing wide from 15 yards on a diagonal effort.
Croatia’s first shot came in the 19th minute when Perisic whistled a low effort wide of the left post from 20 yards. The Vatreni gifted Sterling the ball on the right side with a ghastly turnover, but he picked out Kane in an offsides position.
England should have doubled its lead on the half-hour through Kane. Jesse Lingard did well to control a pass and played Kane through on the left. The striker tried a shot from six yards that Subasic did well to get down quickly and stop, but the ball popped back to Kane near the left post.
He tried to slam the ball inside the post, but it thumped the woodwork and Subasic before spinning over the end line for a Croatia goal kick. The Vatreni finally tested Pickford in the 32nd minute as Modric picked out Ante Rebic on the right side after dribbling with the ball in and out of the penalty area, but Rebic’s shot arrowed right at the England No. 1.
Jesse Lingard became the second Three Lions player to spurn a chance to make it 2-0 in the 36th minute, snatching at his shot from 20 yards after a neat lateral pass from Alli after he drew three defenders to him.
Cakir was content to let the teams play, though the chippiness was steadily increasing throughout the first half. Rebic should have been booked for a cynical challenge from behind on Ashley Young, while Lovren had a pair of tactical midfield fouls that would have warranted a yellow card on most occasions.
Croatia had one last chance before halftime on a free kick and while there was a penalty shout for Maguire holding Lovren, VAR deemed it insufficient as the teams went to halftime.
After the restart, Rebic continued to try and influence the match but overcooked a cross for Perisic in the 53rd minute. England fashioned a corner three minutes later, but Lovren did well to get his foot to Trippier’s in-swinger before Kane could get his head to it.
On the hour, Croatia finally started switching gears as the triangle of Modric, Perisic and Ivan Rakitic grew in stature. Rakitic pounced on a poor clearance from Stones and had time to load up a right-footed shot from the top of the box in the 65th minute, but Walker threw himself in front of it and absorbed it in the midsection.
Three minutes later, though, the Vatreni would have their equalizer. Rakitic sent a reverse-pitch pass to Sime Vrsaljko to the right, and Croatia’s right back quickly fired in a cross while England’s back line was static. Perisic ghosted in front of Walker, getting his right foot to the ball with a high flick above Walker’s head and sending it past Pickford on 68 minutes.
Croatia had its tails up at this point and nearly grabbed the lead four minutes later when Perisic took advantage of another poor clearance by Stones and was able to do a stepover to create some space on the left side of the penalty area before ripping a shot across Pickford that dented the right post.
It came right to Rebic, who was unable to pick out a corner and hit the rebound almost directly at Pickford as England averted a crisis. Southgate made his first switch right before the final quarter-hour as Sterling made way for Rashford.
England finally looked threatening as Lingard fizzed a cross and Henderson went over the bar 12 minutes from time. But the nerves came back as Walker sent a slow back pass towards Pickford that Perisic nearly latched onto before Trippier touched it further back to his keeper as he belted it upfield.
Manduzkic had a shot stopped by Pickford, but then the England keeper had a weak punch that fell to Perisic in the penalty area, but his chip over Pickford also sailed over the bar. England was simply hanging on and looking to get to extra time as Croatia hemmed the Three Lions in their final third, but Lovren gave them a respite when he tried a heroic 30-yard shot that sailed into the crowd.
England had the last chance of regulation, with Kane nodding an unmarked header wide of the left post on a free kick from Trippier. Southgate burned his second sub before the start of the first extra period, introducing Danny Rose for Young.
Alli did himself a disservice in the 93rd minute by failing to shoot as opposed to his lay off that was cleared by Croatia’s defense. Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic was forced into his first change as Ivan Strinic came up hobbling, and Josep Pivaric entered at left back.
Unlike its match against Colombia, England was demonstrably better in the opening 15-minute extra period and came agonizingly close to grabbing the lead in the 98th minute.
Trippier sent a perfect corner from the right, and Stones got all of a header he angled for the left post. But Vrsaljko was perfectly stationed, unlike most teams who opted not to have players stationed at the posts, and he jumped to head a sure goal off the line.
Croatia made one last push in the waning moments of the first extra 15 minutes, with Dier making a vital block of a drive by Andrej Kramaric, and then Pickford came up with a magnificent reflex save on a shot by Mandzukic after Perisic whipped in a cross from the left.
The teams switched sides for the second extra period, and one could sense England’s fatigue was more mental than physical as Rakitic played a wily short corner on the left for Marcelo Brozovic, but he ripped his 10-yard shot into the side netting as opposed to going across his body.
After Mandzukic’s goal, Southgate’s final roll of the dice came with Jamie Vardy entering for Walker. Subasic comfortably claimed a cross from Rashford, and Croatia won a corner as it began its bid to see off the match.
Pivaric hit a 25-yard curler right at Pickford, but Trippier came up limping and hobbled over the end line, instantly knowing his match had been run and waited for help from England’s physio staff. Now down to 10 men, England continued to pour forward, and Alli won a free kick on the left.
What should have been a corner kick was ruled a goal kick after Rashford’s play into the area was nodded out by Lovren and not Maguire. The indefeatigable Modric was lifted in the 118th minute for Milan Baldelj as the Vatreni were set to bunker and chase.
Kramaric could have done more in the 120th minute, but he opted to shoot instead of send Perisic through and went into the side netting. Pivaric inexplicably gave England one last lifeline in stoppage time, hitting a cross right at Pickford rather than killing time in the corner.
Badelj was whistled for a handball 35 yards out, but Rashford’s chip went begging, and a weary yet unbroken Croatia side was through to its first World Cup final.