Meanwhile in Moscow: Perisic-Mandzu Take Croatia to Last Act

Croatia are the second finalist of World Cup 2018. Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic pushed the Balkan side into their first world final ever, overturning Kieran Trippier’s initial lead for England. The Vatreni will thus face France next Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow for the last act, a totally deserved achievement for the white-and-red checkered squad. A generation of talents who has already conquered Europe, placing many of their representatives in key positions of many top clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus – seems finally ready to cash in at national level as well.

During the last three weeks in Russia, we saw Croatia crushing weaker opponents, being cynical when needed, and going the distance twice to survive penalty shootouts. But we had not seen them coming from behind yet, sustaining the pressure of being down in a World Cup Semi Final, and still finding the strength to come back. They did it last night, even if once again it took them 120 minutes to overcome the opponents. It would seem that they don’t enjoy themselves, if they don’t push the game to extra time at least.

And still, the tiredness accumulated in the last three games could potentially make a difference on Sunday, when Croatia will face a French squad that won all their knock-out matches during regular times, and also got one more day to rest. Mario Mandzukic collapsing due to cramps in the 113th minute, and failing to end a game for the second time straight, tells us that fatigue may take a toll on the brave Croatians. Even if the Ivan Perisic seen last night – literally unstoppable! – could be enough to compensate.

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Mario Mandzukic hits the ball to score Croatia’s second goal over England, a feat that pushed the Balkans into a World Cup Final for the first time in their history

The English tasted the sweet flavor of a World Cup Semi Final for the first time since 1990, but ate too much in a rush, and ended up choking themselves. Trippier’s early lead, followed by a first half where Gareth Southgate’s team was mostly in control, deluded the Three Lions fans, before the class and the experience of the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic reversed the trend. Too bad, but the future looks bright for England and their young lions, who came to Russia with a squad whose average age was among the lowest, and a roster entirely made of players from the domestic Premier League.

England had a roaring start indeed, and after four minutes they had already moved the score. Dele Alli gained a free kick from just out of the box and, from the spot, it was like David Beckham suddenly incarnated into Kieran Trippier, an honest defender from Tottenham, driving his right foot to place the ball into the top right corner of Danijel Subasic’s goal. Perfect execution. Bend it like Trippier, baby.

The early goal boosted the morale of the Brits, while Croatia appeared unexpectedly remissive. In the 29th minute it took a double miracle by Subasic to prevent England from widening the gap. Monaco’s goalkeeper won a one-on-one with Harry Kane, saving his shot from close distance, then also parried back his attempted tap in with the help of the post. Another great performance for Croatia’s number 23, who’s arguably running for the title of best goalkeeper of Russia 2018.

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England celebrate number 12 Kieran Trippier, who has just scored for his side with a stunning free-kick. The English were in the lead for almost 45 minutes, cultivating the dream of making to the Final again after 52 years…

Croatia’s reaction was all in a few unpretentious long range shots, with Ivan Perisic, Sime Vrsaljko, and Ante Rebic. The 25-year-old Rebic also made himself dangerous into the British box, but Ashley Young managed to clear the ball out before he could make any damage. In the 35th minute, Jesse Lingard was served almost on the penalty spot, and wasted another chance to make it two for Gareth Southgate’s eleven.

The Balkans appeared in difficulty for the full first half, and got stuck in a sterile ball possession that posed no threat whatsoever to English goalie Jordan Pickford. Home supporters from Russia made it crystal clear which side they had chosen to support, resoundingly booing at Croatia’s inconclusive passes and raising their volume even more every time defender Domagoj Vida touched the ball.

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Luka Modric attempts a shot, contrasted by Jordan Henderson

The blonde Croatian defender, who plays in Ukraine for Dynamo Kyiv, had sparked controversies and criticism at his celebration video after the victory over Russia, where he could be seen shouting “Glory to Ukraine!” (whose tensions with Russia are unfortunately well-known…). After Granit Xhaka and Xerdhan Shaqiri’s allusive celebration in the Group Stage, another case of football getting mixed with politics…

A listless Kane was anticipated by Dejan Lovren in the 56th minute, failing to convert a cross from the right by Trippier, and basically marking the end of the half of the game controlled by the Albion. From then on, Ivan Perisic entered the stage and didn’t leave it until the end of the show. Inter’s winger scored the equalising goal, but much credit for it also goes to Sime Vrsaliko, who tamed a fleeing ball on the right flank, and turned it into a long-range lob cross in the middle of the English box.

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Ivan Perisic’s acrobatic conversion leveled for the Vatreni in the 58th minute, changing the momentum of a match that had seen the English in control until then

Perisic was lucky enough to be marked by Kyle Walker – the weak link in England’s defensive chain during the whole tournament – and anticipated him to put the ball past Pickford to make it 1-1. The British side, and especially Walker, felt the hit, and a few minutes later risked compromising the game with a suicidal back pass to his keeper. Perisic, once again, intercepted it, but the post denied him the joy of a World Cup brace.

Southgate tried to shake his side up, sending in Marcus Rashford for an inconclusive Raheem Sterling (a World Cup below expectations for the Citizen…), but the teams dragged the match to extra time with no further emotions. Both coaches could still use three substitutions, and the first extra half turned into a whirligig of changes, with England sending in Denny Rose and Eric Dier. Croatia’s Zlaltko Dalic, on the other hand, had to pull out a limping Ivan Strinic, replacing him with Josip Pivaric.

There was still time for one scoring chance per part however: John Stones seemed ready to celebrate for the third time in this World Cup, after scoring twice to Panama, but his sure-hit header was miraculously deflected right on the goal line by Vrsaljko. One the other side, Perisic (who else?) served Mario Mandzukic from the left, and Juventus’ striker called Pickford to action again, successfully testing his reflexes.

The Italian chain Perisic-Mandzukic had more luck three minutes into the second extra half, however. The script was similar, with Inter’s midfielder freeing Juventus’ striker in the box, but this time Marione couldn’t fail, and indeed put the ball in the net to score Croatia’s decisive 2-1. The fun part is that he also risked killing a sideline photographer during his celebration, crashing over him as his teammates run to mass-hug him…

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AFP Photographer Yuri Cortez shot this picture after being trampled by the Croatians, as Mario Mandzukic offered him a hand to stand up (Photo: AFP / Yuri Cortez)

Mandzukic left the pitch two minutes later, as Dalic wisely sent in defender Vedran Corluka to cover himself. Coach Southgate, on the other hand, went all in, and threw Jamie Vardy in for the final assault – which however bore no results. Football didn’t “come home,” in the end, as Queen Elizabeth’s subjects had been hoping for the last three weeks. The Final will be a matter between Croatia and France.

Last time the two sides met in a World Cup, Les Blues needed a double from defender Lilian Thuram (!) to overcome the tenacious Vatreni on their way to their only world title so far. Sunday might be redeeming time for Croatia, or time for history to repeat itself. Only the World Cup knows.

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Coach Gareth Southgate comforts his players at full time. Despite the loss, the English went home with their heads held high, knowing that the future looks bright…

MATCH REPORT

July 11, 2018 – World Cup Semi Finals
CROATIA-ENGLAND 2-1 after extra time

SCORERS: 5′ Trippier (E), 58′ Perisic (C), 109′ Mandzukic (C)

Croatia CROATIA (4-1-4-1): Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic (94′ Pivaric); Brozovic; Rebic (101′ Kramaric), Rakitic, Modric (119′ Badelj), Perisic; Mandzukic (115′ Corluka) (Livakovic, Kalinic, Kovacic, Jedvaj, Bradaric, Caleta-Car, Pjaca) Coach: Dalic
England ENGLAND (3-5-2): Pickford; Walker (111′ Vardy), Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli, Henderson (97′ Dier), Lingard, Young (91′ Rose); Sterling (73′ Rashford), Kane (Butland, Pope, Welbeck, Cahill, Jones, Delph, Loftus-Cheek, Alexander-Arnold) Coach: Southgate

REFEREE: Cakir (Turkey)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Mandzukic, Rebic (C), Walker (I)

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Click below to relive some of Croatia and England’s previous games at World Cup 2018:
Argentina-Croatia 0-3
Iceland-Croatia 1-2
Croatia-Denmark 1-1; 3-2 on penalties
Russia-Croatia 2-2; 3-4 on penalties
Tunisia-England 1-2
England-Panama 6-1

Belgium-England 1-0
Sweden-England 0-2

 

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