In the beginning, it was quintessential England. In the end, it was quintessential Mario Mandzukic; it is the end of England’s magical World Cup run; and it is the continuation of Croatia’s.
Croatia, a country of just over 4 million people, advanced to its first-ever World Cup final with a dramatic 2-1 extra-time victory over the English on Wednesday. Mandzukic’s predatory 109th-minute goal booked a date with France in Sunday’s final:
England had gone ahead early, but lost control of the match in the second half. It then lost it in the 30 added minutes, when it theoretically should have been superior.
Croatia, after all, had played 330 minutes of soccer over the past 11 days when the teams trudged off the field in Moscow to prepare for extra time. It had looked gassed four days earlier after 120 minutes against Russia. On Wednesday, it became the second team in World Cup history to play three consecutive games of more than 90 minutes.
But somehow, the Croats kept going. Kept battling. Kept pushing themselves to and past their limits. Luka Modric was relentless. Ivan Perisic was ruthless. Mandzukic was brave and valiant, then heroic.
And as a result, Croatia is the first team in World Cup history to win three consecutive games of more than 90 minutes. It also became the second-smallest nation to ever make the World Cup final. And based on its second-half performance, it deserved every bit of the most famous win in its brief history.
Croatia’s out-of-nowhere rise
Croatia has the talent of a soccer powerhouse, but very little history that would have foretold of this. It hasn’t even existed as a country for three decades. It began competing as a national team independent of Yugoslavia in 1990. It finished third at its first World Cup in 1998, but hadn’t progressed past a group stage since … until now.
Croatia’s recent soccer past has been riddled with internal feuds and counterproductive controversy. Its most accomplished player, Modric, is despised by some fans – and has been charged with perjury – for backtracking on statements that would have helped convict Croatian soccer’s biggest villain, agent/executive/criminal/fugitive Zdravko Mamic.
The widespread corruption and dysfunction within Croatia’s soccer federation have even led fans to occasionally turn on the team. Several hurled flares onto the field during an infamous Euro 2016 game. The off-field absurdity has often seemed to have deleterious on-field effects.
And it was perhaps one of the reasons the Croatians very nearly didn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. They entered the final day of qualifying behind Iceland, and tied with Ukraine in second place in UEFA Group I. Through an hour of a decisive head-to-head showdown with Ukraine, they were still tied. A Ukrainian goal would have eliminated the now-World Cup finalists.
Instead, Croatia won that game, then won a do-or-die playoff against Greece. Now it has stormed through the tournament in Russia, thrashing Argentina in the group stage and surviving two penalty shootouts.
The road, needless to say, has been long and bumpy. Improbably, a world championship is now within reach.
England strikes again from dead ball
England entered the game having scored seven of its 11 World Cup goals directly or indirectly from free kicks and corners. Less than five minutes into Wednesday’s game, Kieran Trippier made it eight of 12, and lifted his nation into a premature dreamland.
Trippier sent a delicate free kick spinning over the Croatian wall and into the back of the net:
England has been tremendous on set pieces because it has put a tremendous amount of time and energy into set pieces. And Trippier’s goal was no exception. The location of England players in and around the wall was all part of the plan. They helped screen Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. They were the reason Subasic didn’t see the ball until it was up and over the wall – the reason his incomplete dive got nowhere close to Trippier’s shot.
But the goal wasn’t just about the set piece itself. It was about the midfield connection that won the free kick.
The Dele Alli-Jesse Lingard connection
Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, two of England’s more exciting players, have had up-and-down tournaments. But they played pivotal roles in Wednesday’s first half, each in his own way.
Their most influential moments enabled the goal. Lingard won a second ball in the attacking half, and with his first touch spun around Marcelo Brozovic. Alli, reading the play, crept forward into the space that Modric’s advanced midfield role opened up. Modric was late tracking back, and fouled Alli from behind:
Later in the half, Alli set up Lingard at the top of the box, but the Manchester United midfielder got his technique wrong:
England was the better team in the first half, and was decently dangerous from open play.
Raheem Sterling was excellent. He was everywhere. As he had against Sweden, he stretched the Croatian defense vertically and horizontally, driving England forward. But the Three Lions missed their one golden chance to extend the lead …
Harry Kane’s wasted chance
Harry Kane will, in all likelihood, win the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup. He had a satisfactory tournament. But he really should have put England 2-0 up inside a half-hour:
The assistant referee’s flag was up on the far side, but Kane was onside. The goal would have stood. Instead, Kane was left to rue the miss. It was the last chance he’d get in Russia.
Croatia and Ivan Perisic roar back
England seemed fairly comfortable for over an hour. Then it crumbled.
Minutes after taking aPerisic shot to the groin area, Kyle Walker failed to attack a cross with enough urgency. Perisic beat Walker to it with a flying volleyed flick – and perhaps with a high boot that should have seen the goal disallowed:
Suddenly, England seemed shellshocked. Minutes later, a defensive miscommunication and shoddy clearance presented Perisic with another chance. He exploded toward the endline with a stepover, and flashed a left-footed shot past Jordan Pickford and flush off the far post.
England players went from calm on the ball to jittery and sloppy. Pickford went from commanding to shaky, both with his feet and his hands.
Croatia, once wayward in its search for an equalizer, was decidedly on top for the final 20 minutes. It was the team pushing for a winner as the 90 minutes and stoppage time petered out. It hadn’t made a single sub, and didn’t look a lick tired. The team that was supposed to be devoid of energy was full of it.
England recovered and steadied itself throughout the first half of extra time. And it had the first great chance. A classic corner play got John Stones free at the near post, eight yards out. His header was destined for the far post – probably literally – but was cleared off the line by Sime Vrsaljko.
At the other end, Croatia nearly pulled ahead right at the end of the first 15-minute period.
Perisic, the best player on the field, whipped in a wonderful ball from the left, into the so-called corridor of uncertainty. Mandzukic, sneaking in between England center backs, latched onto it. But Pickford charged off his line to make a point-blank save.