Resolve of Zlatko Dalic's comeback kings Croatia earn them World Cup final place
Dalic's side fight back from conceding first goal for third successive knockout game to reach the World Cup final against France on Sunday
At the end - and it was a late end yet again for the serial nightwatchmen of Croatia - Sime Vrsaljko marched up to Zlatko Dalic, hugged him around his waist, lifted him a foot off the ground and playfully threw him on the turf of the Luzhniki stadium.
And just to make it look like a full WWE moment, the Croatia right back then landed on his boss, and they both laughed long and loud well until well past Moscow's midnight chimes.
The surprising thing was not so much the camaraderie and the joy, it was that Vrsaljko still had the energy to do anything so physical.
The player had, remember, been a huge doubt to even take part in the semi-final against England because of the knee problem he aggravated in Croatia's draining quarter-final against Russia four days earlier.
Evidently Vrsaljko, of Atletico Madtid, is made of tungsten. For man short of full fitness, he had played a remarkable two hours, including a decisive intervention, a tackle made at speed and with authority, closing down England’s last significant attack as they sought a way back from 2-1 down.
There had also been a superb Vrsaljko header off the goal-line to clear a John Stones header that would have given England the lead in extra-time.
Croatia could cite any number of heroes besides Vrsaljko on the journey to their first-ever World Cup final. They really will not be beaten, this lot.
They fell behind for third third consecutive match in the knockout stage, and went into extra time for the third time on the trot, too.
Mercifully, they were spared a third penalty shoot-out in succession, but it will still be a tired group of footballers who take on France on Sunday.
But then it was a tired set of Croatians who took on England. And they fell behind within the first six minutes. Dalic had stressed the need not to concede free-kicks close to their own penalty area because, in what is no longer news to this World Cup, dead-balls are a prized weapon here, and England are as good as anybody at handling that weapon.
Boom. Kieran Trippier beat Danijel Subasic with a direct free-kick.
The superstitious might have seen this start and imagined Croatia are cursed not only to fall at the semi-final stage, whenever they dare reach it at a World Cup, but to do so thanks to a full-back who surprisingly finds his inner hotshot.
Back in 1998, when a Croatia buoyant that its young nation had even qualified for the World Cup for the first time went to France and reached the last four, they came up against the hosts, for a place in the final.
They took a lead that day, and then something remarkable came over the French right-back, Lilian Thuram. He set off on a pair of rare forays forward, not normally in his make-up, and scored not once but twice to rescue his France, who went on to lift the trophy.
For Thuram, read Trippier, who strikes a fine cross, but seldom scores goals. England were lifted, and threatened to exert control for a period after going ahead.
Going one-nil down is Croatia’s bad habit, but not their fatal flaw. Russia took a first-half lead against them in Sochi last Saturday and Denmark had scored within two minutes of the last-16 epic.
They are comeback specialists, and no one knows this squad’s capacity for recovering as well as Dalic.
When he was summoned to rescue their qualifying campaign last October, he found Croatia teetering.
They steadied and are now 90 minutes away from being the most improbable would champions, and certainly those from the smallest country, since Uruguay in 1954.
England could not, by the end of the two hours, begrudge Croatia the win. With Luka Modric increasingly influential and Ivan Perisic and Mario Madzukic belatedly discovering the ruthless finishing that had deserted them earlier, they finally capitalised on a greater share of possession and certainly on having created more clear-cut chances.
And at the back Vrsaljko and Domagoj Vida in particular showed an authority and determination that checked a young, spirited England team.
Mandzukic and Modric were both utterly wearied by the effort, and that will be a concern to Dalic. But he knows huge pride will shoot adrenalin through the veins of all his players against a fresher, younger France in the final. The celebrations on the pitch showed that.
Vida played merrily with his very young, blond son. Croatian flags were stretched across the turf, and Vrsaljko leapt on Dalic with happy abandon.
Updated: July 12, 2018 07:54 AM