England go halfway to the World Cup final but fall short against Croatia on emotional night in Moscow
England 1-2 Croatia (aet): As Gareth Southgate always says, these players have been writing their own stories in Russia, but they have ended up writing one that we have read before
Halfway to the greatest night in modern English football history. Halfway to a complete performance, halfway to proving that they could beat top sides, with young English players passing the ball and opening them up. It was halfway to Sunday’s World Cup final. Halfway, and so far from being enough.
Those facts, or rather that one huge fact, pulls the emotions in both directions after this long painful night at the Luzhniki. This ground that England were hoping to return to, to face France on Sunday. They were 22 minutes away from making it back here, before Ivan Perisic grabbed it away.
First there is pride, the pride of the England fans who stayed on to applaud the tearful players. That they got this far, this they came this close, and that they did so playing the way they did, with the players they have. The broader judgements can wait but this team has done more than anyone could have hoped for.
There is also sadness, and who knows tonight how long that will take to get over. That this thrilling team could not quite complete a job that they looked, for so much time, to be so assured at. But as the fans stayed in their seats, gone midnight, singing ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, it felt unlikely that this defeat will prompt the same grief, the same soul-searching and pained re-examination of national priorities as semi-final defeats of the past have done. Even if we accept that no England may ever get a better chance than this.
Because England threw everything they had at Croatia on Wednesday night, and they lost to a better team. Here, in the biggest game these players will ever play, England produced one half of excellent football, the best that they have played all tournament. They were fast, incisive, assertive and confident. A better version of themselves, of the Gareth Southgate identity, than they have been so far.
England took the lead, deserved it, and held it for more than an hour. They had chances to double their lead, the best to Harry Kane towards the end of the first half. Had they scored a second goal then who knows what would have happened next. Maybe that would have given them enough of a footing to survive the Croatian wave that eventually broke over them. But we will never know.
This will inevitably be compared to Turin 1990 and Wembley 1996 - those are judgements for the next few days - but there was a characteristic feel to the way the game went after England’s strong fast half. This team has been true to its pledge to write its own story this summer, but what they wrote read like something we have read before.
Think back to the start of the second half, when England were 1-0 up against a ragged Croatia side who looked off the pace and, frankly, out of their depth at times. Especially with Raheem Sterling running at them and space opening up. But from that point on, Croatia succeeded in playing the game they wanted to play. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic started to take control and Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard looked more leggy and more limited with every long minute that passed. England still had the lead, but they no longer had control.
It was sickening but not wholly surprising when, half-way through the second half, Perisic was sharp enough to pull Croatia level. England never truly recovered, not to the level they were playing at in that thrilling first half. By the end of 90 minutes they were desperately chasing Croatia’s black shirts around, hanging on in a game they thought was all theirs. By extra-time it was almost all Croatia and early in the second period of it, Mario Mandzukic killed England off. In truth it could have ended much sooner: Perisic had two good chances to win it before 90 minutes. Which would at least have brought a swifter end to the agony.
What made it all so painful is that long before all that, almost three hours before the team were scattered and slumped all over the pitch, England had started in the best possible way. They wanted to begin fast, aggressive and dangerous, and they did. They knew that a long drawn-out game would favour Croatia - of course they were right - so they needed to get in front as soon as they could. But even then they must have thought this was their perfect evening when Modric clattered Alli 20 yards out just four minutes in. And Kieran Trippier did what he has been doing all summer, executing a dead-ball situation in the most spectacular way possible.
With two men on one side of the wall and three on the other, Croatia were ready for England to remove their screen and whip the ball through it. Instead, Trippier curled the ball over the top of the ball. Danijel Subasic had no idea what to expect until it was too late.
By scoring so early, England hoped they had removed the possibility of a long, slow passing game, although in truth they had just delayed its onset.
This was when England needed to score a second goal, and by not doing so the game started to shift imperceptibly away from them. Harry Maguire twice went close with headers from corners. Alli set up Lingard, who should have done better from the edge of the box. Best of all, Lingard found Kane, on the brink of offside, but his shot hit the post and then Subasic and flew painfully away.
While all this was going on, Croatia were slowly starting to get into the game. At the start England were pressing them, relying on their lively legs, and Croatia could never quite get that midfield grip they have at their best. So the onus was on Croatia, at the start of the second half, to do something better, to play their authentic football and challenge England’s hold. But England did not look like they expected Croatia to respond to their challenge, not quite as well as this.
As England’s pressing energy started to leak out of them, Modric and Rakitic each found just an inch more space every time they had the ball. Every pass was better than the last, none of it was rushed, every move better built. It no longer felt like England could run Croatia off the pitch. Not when England were running exactly where Croatia sent them.
Unable to keep playing the game they wanted to, England were pushed slowly back. They started to rely on Walker, Maguire and Stones throwing themselves in front of shots, desperately heading the ball away, anything to preserve England’s lead. But no team can rely on that forever, not with this much on the line.
It started to feel ominous, and soon enough the sky caved in. Vrsaljko again had space on the right to cross. Perisic, ghosting in from the left, eluded both Trippier and Walker, and both were slow to react. Perisic stuck out a boot, Walker thought his head would be enough and Croatia were level. A momentary lapse from England, but one that felt as if it had been probable as long as they let the game drift.
England conceded a sickening equaliser against Colombia but this was worse, 22 minutes away from a World Cup final. And they took it as badly as you would expect them to, as all that unity, trust and shape melted instantly away. Croatia had been slowly growing into the game, but now they were level they looked like scoring with every attack. The end of normal time was the most painful period imaginable for England, as every minute they were inches away from being knocked out by Perisic and Rebic.
It took some luck just for England to make it through to extra-time. Something had to change so Southgate threw on Danny Rose and Eric Dier. Dier even forced a corner, Stones’ header was cleared off the line. Some will fixate on that moment to explain why things went the way they did, but it was just one action, totally at odds with the flow of the game, which was entirely in Croatia’s favour.
It was Mario Mandzukic who killed England off, and they cannot say that they were not warned. At the end of the first half of extra-time, he pounced on a low cross into the box, which Pickford kept out only with typically brilliant instinctive save, bursting off his line to block it. But you cannot survive like that forever.
Mandzukic had the reading of England. He knew they were tired, struggling, and could not hold him back forever. Soon after the restart, Perisic and Trippier challenged for a header on the edge of the box. It looked harmless enough. But as the ball looped towards goal, Manduzkic was sharper on it, more aware, than Maguire and Stones around him. He tucked the ball away before England had woken up.
England had nothing left and spent the last 10 minutes looking lost and out of their depth. Like a team who had given everything but had finally come up against a side with more experience, more nous and more ruthlessness than them. Which of course is the case, but nonetheless not their fault.