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Croatia earns World Cup final berth with win over England

By STEVEN GOFF
The Washington Post

July 11. 2018 9:42PM




MOSCOW — Croatia, a 27-year-old country of 4.3 million citizens and 23 superb soccer players, will vie for the sport’s most treasured trophy, the World Cup.

With a 2-1 extra-time victory over England on Wednesday, the Croatians will attempt to become the smallest nation since Uruguay in 1950 to win the championship. France awaits Sunday at the very same venue, Luzhniki Stadium.

In reaching the final for the first time, Croatia extended England’s disappointment in major tournaments to 52 years.

The Three Lions had gone ahead in the early moments, but Croatia drew even midway through the second half. And in the 19th of 30 additional minutes, Mario Mandzukic smashed an angled, six-yard shot past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

Ivan Perisic, who had scored the equalizer in the 68th minute, made it possible by winning a header at the top corner of the penalty area. Mandzukic beat two defenders and met the ball in stride for left-footed glory.

The celebration spilled into photographers’ row, burying one poor shooter in a mass of white jerseys.

England will play Belgium for third place Saturday in St. Petersburg.

Since winning the 1966 title, the Three Lions have gone 13 World Cups without reaching the final (and in that time, they’ve gone to the semifinals just twice). Their record in the other major competition, the European Championship, has been even worse: no finals since the event began in 1960.

Things began with great promise Wednesday: a goal in the fifth minute.

Kieran Trippier has drawn comparisons to David Beckham for his ability to cross the ball with precision accuracy. His right foot is also weaponized for set pieces and, with a free kick dead-on from 25 yards, the Tottenham Hotspur player scored his first international goal.

Two steps and . . . thump! The ball took flight, cleared the head of a leaping pillar in the defensive wall and steamed toward the target. Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic prepared to launch, then realizing neither man nor beast was going to intervene, he aborted.

Teammates piled on Trippier along the sideline. Manager Gareth Southgate, looking dapper as ever in his trendsetting, form-fitting blue waistcoat, pumped his arms. All over England, on Waistcoat Wednesday, the masses celebrated.

England just seemed so relax and prepared for every situation, not flustered in the slightest by the momentous occasion.

But Croatia regrouped after conceding the goal and manufactured a few minor threats. Croatia is a technically superior side, led by Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, but in the buildup to the match, concern centered around fatigue after playing 120 minutes in each of the first two knockout tests.

It didn’t seem to affect the winners in the slightest.

Croatia set the terms early in the second half, turning up the heat on England’s stout back line and not allowing goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to let down his guard.

The equalizer came midway through the half. Sime Vrsaljko swung the ball from the right wing into the penalty area. Perisic was on the back side with two defenders between him and the ball.

Trippier let Perisic slip by. Kyle Walker prepared to head the ball from danger, but as it approached, Perisic swung his raised left leg around the defender’s cranium and stabbed in a leaping volley from six yards.

Four minutes later, with the Croatians buzzing with momentum and England not knowing how to stop them, Perisic beat Pickford with an angled blast that kissed the base of the far post.

Poor decisions and touches bedeviled England, which was fortunate to remain level with a ravenous foe. Pickford left himself stranded off his line after an ineffective punch in the 84th minute, but the Croatians let him off the hook with a wayward shot at an open net.

Harry Kane could have won it for England in stoppage time but failed to make solid contact with a clear header off of a set piece.

In the first 15 minutes of extra time, Vrsaljko rescued Croatia with a goal-line clearance on John Stones’s header and Pickford deflected Mandzukic’s redirect an instant before they collided.

Mandzukic then found the target, sending Croatia to the final and sending England home in tears again.


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