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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Croatia reach World Cup final as Mandzukic goal sinks England in extra time

Zlatko Dalic's men come from behind to win 2-1 in Moscow and set up final showdown with France on Sunday

Mario Mandzukic celebrates his winner for Croatia. EPA
Mario Mandzukic celebrates his winner for Croatia. EPA

Croatia climbed back off the canvas, and England were coming home.

A frantic semi-final weaved one way and then the next in Moscow on Wednesday, but in the end Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time strike did it.

It sent Croatia into a first World Cup final in their history, at the same time leaving England to regret the opportunity to create some of their own had been spurned.

They had a dream start, scoring on five minutes at a thronged and throbbing Luzhniki Stadium, but then Croatia hauled themselves up by their boot straps and across the line.

They battled a third successive 120 minutes and more, stood up when they needed to be counted and set up a showdown on Sunday with France. There, at the same venue as their greatest result to date, winner takes all.

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Zlatko Dalic, Luka Modric and all surpassed their 1998 vintage. Everyone’s expectations to boot. They celebrated like they should upon the final whistle. At the opposite end, England's players lay prone on the turf, tears in their eyes, dreams wrecked.

For the opening 45 minutes, they had appeared set for the showpiece. Tripper scored his free-kick, joining Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker as England scorers in a World Cup semi-final.

The Tottenham Hotspur full-back curled an expert effort past Daniel Subasic,a although the Croatia goalkeeper was perhaps too far to one side. Still, Trippier’s execution was as technique-tight as it had been all tournament.

In the stands, and enjoying a rare night off from fronting BBC’s World Cup coverage, Lineker leapt in the air in celebration. He could not have wished for better.

Zlatko Dalic, the Croatia manager, with England manager Gareth Southgate after the game. EPA
Zlatko Dalic, the Croatia manager, with England manager Gareth Southgate after the game. EPA

For the third match on the bounce, Croatia found themselves a goal down. But, like against Denmark in the last 16 and against hosts Russia in the quarters, they recovered.

Successive penalty shootouts, and the energy and emotion those wrought, looked to have taken their toll, only for them to improve to dominate the second half. They reaped their just rewards.

With 22 minutes left, right-back Sime Vrsaljko crossed for Ivan Perisic to beat Kyle Walker to the ball and prod home past Jordan Pickford.

England claimed the Croat’s foot was dangerously high, but their protests were more in hope than anything else.

Perisic moved to four World Cup goals in all; only Davor Suker has more. Minutes later, Perisic nearly had a fifth, but struck the base of the post. England were rattled, their rivals reenergised.

In the first half of extra-time, Vrsaljko cleared off the line Stones’ header. Pickford’s leg deflected Mandzukic’s shot over the bar when a goal seemed certain. All the while, the scenarios seesawed.

Then Mandzukic reacted fastest to Perisic’s flicked header and pulled his cross across Pickford and into the net. It was 109 minutes in, his anticipation and execution superb. Somehow, Croatia had flipped the semi-final completely on its head.

England were done, finishing the game with 10 men once Trippier had limped off. Croatia were too, but in the most white of white-hot circumstances, they had found that little something extra.

A first final, the chance to ascend the apex and admire football’s ultimate view, was theirs.