Mario Mandzukic's extra-time goal ends England's World Cup journey
Calcutta/Moscow: Mario Mandzukic's 109th-minute strike helped Croatia create history as they beat England 2-1 in the second semi-final at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday, clinching their first-ever World Cup final berth.
The regulation time ended 1-1 after Kieran Trippier's fifth-minute strike was cancelled out by Ivan Perisic 23 minutes into the second session.
Croatia, after conceding an early goal, had England under all sorts of trouble especially in the second half and even had opportunities to go on the ascendancy once they equalised. They eventually ahead - in the 19th minute of extra time - when Mandzukic took full toll of England's seemingly sleepy defence.
A simple header allowed Mandzukic to drift in behind John Stones, before he slotted him effortlessly, setting up Croatia's final date with France. Come Sunday and France will be up against the Croats' resolve and perseverance.
For England, who were just a rung above mediocrity after the breather, their captain Harry Kane - highest scorer so far in the competition - was far from being at his best. That certainly was another reason behind England's defeat as they will now vie for the third place with Belgium on Saturday.
But England were the better side in the first half. Early in the fourth minute, Dele Alli was tripped on the edge of the box by Luka Modric after a nice piece of control by Jesse Lingard. Referee Cakir Cuneyt of Turkey duly awarded England with a free-kick, and then Trippier unleashed a stunner.
The fullback, setting himself up from around 20 yards, curled in a magnificent right-footer that easily sailed over the Croatian wall, giving goalkeeper Danijel Subasic no chance at all of blocking or deflecting it. Subasic did attempt to get across, but such was the quality and placement of Trippier's strike that it was at least a feet or two away from the Croatia goalie to bulge into the top right corner.
At the half-hour mark, England had a decent chance to score their second goal. Kane went for the follow-up from a tight angle, with Subasic trying to make things tougher for the former. And Kane's effort came off the post.
Danger man Modric twice tried to unsettle the England defence, but Jordan Henderson and Alli managed to get the ball away to safety.
After the change of ends, in the 57th minute, Trippier was played down the right flank and he crossed one for Kane, who attempted a diving header. But Dejan Lovren's interception denied the England captain.
And then, 11 minutes later came England's moment of agony. Sime Vrsaljko whipped in a cross from the right flank, and Perisic beat Walker and stuck his foot out to convert, making it 1-1. The goal was a result of Croatia's sustained pressure on the England defence.
Vrsaljko rose to the occasion again for his team when he positioned himself correctly and at the right time to head away Stones's on-target header off Trippier's cross in the 99th minute.
England too survived a scare in the closing moments of the first half of extra time, thanks to Pickford. Perisic set Mandzukic up from the left with a wonderful pass, but Pickford was equally alert to the task. He advanced and smartly blocked Mandzukic's tap.
But then, Mandzukic had the final say as it were he and his teammates that had the last laugh.
Captain Kane, himself misfiring when it mattered the most, admitted that the margin of errors is minimal in such crunch matches. "It was very tough... In the big games, we have small margins," a disconsolate Kane said after the game.
"We probably could have gone on to win, but we fell short."
England legend Gary Lineker, however, patted Gareth Southgate's young brigade although he believes the team choked in this semi-final clash. The team choked, but the players gave it their all, Lineker feels.
"Utterly choked, but this young side gave absolutely everything. It's a huge step forward," Lineker tweeted.
WORLD CUP SEMIS