England fans, unfortunately, it’s not coming home.
Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal in extra time to send Croatia into the World Cup final, and England out of the competition, in one of the tensest fixtures you’ll ever set your eyes on.
It all started so well.
Within five minutes Dele Alli had picked up the ball in midfield and driven at the heart of Croatia’s defence, winning a free kick from Luka Modric in the process. And Trippier – who, realistically speaking, must be in contention for player of the tournament – stood up and dispatched beautifully.
England fans across the country, obviously, threw their lager in the air.
Trippier went down with two other names in English footballing folklore; Sir Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker, as the Englishmen to score in a World Cup semi-final.
It’s been quite a rise for the Tottenham wing-back, but he could surely have never in his wildest dreams imagined this. It was his first goal for England and his first in any professional game for two and a half years.
England was much the better team for the duration of the first half. They created clear chances aplenty, with Raheem Sterling the chief protagonist. His pace scared the life out of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, and England regularly sought out the ball in behind for Sterling to chase as the game wore on. They were in a place to do so with their lead.
Harry Kane led the line brilliantly, and while used as more of a target man through the evening than anything else, it was he who had as good a chance as any to score the second. After finding space down the left channel of the penalty box and beating the offside trap, Kane was faced one-to-one with Danijel Subasic.
Kane fired his first shot straight at the goalkeeper and somehow saw the rebound spin away from the goal too. While he still leads the Golden Boot ranks, he’d have been kicking himself for failing to add to his tally there.
Jesse Lingard perhaps wasted England’s other clear first-half chance, but he could only skew a shot wide from the edge of the box.
Croatia threatened in waves, but always looked outnumbered in the final third throughout the first half – it’s a credit to Gareth Southgate’s system for that. Luka Modric’s team were there for the taking at the break.
England’s opponents needed to step it up after the break, but they were nearly caught out but for Lovren’s intervention ten minutes into the second half as Trippier aimed a low cross towards Kane’s head. The Liverpool man got there just in the nick of time.
Croatia looked leggy (it’s worth remembering they’d been through extra time and penalties in the previous two rounds) but shaded the earlier stages of the second half as they tried to pick a way through. Their opportunities were few and far between though, and they were limited to a lot of possession in front of Southgate’s men.
It was the 65th minute before Croatia really threatened the goal. A cleared cross only found its way to Perisic at the edge of the area, and his shot rifled into an already fallen Kyle Walker before the ball was cleared away.
But if a goal was going to come for the Croats, it always looked as if it’d have been from a moment of quality swinging the ball in. Then it did come, and the belief that it was actually coming home was starting to wane.
Sime Vrsaljko swung a wonderful cross into the middle of the six-yard box, and Perisic, who was growing in threat, beat his man to the ball and worked the ball past Jordan Pickford.
England had to gather themselves, but the minutes that followed were to be among the most difficult in these young players’ lives.
A mix up at the back saw Perisic in some space once more, and after a wonderful step over and shimmy to the left, he searched out the far side of the net. He was denied by the post in a huge stroke of luck for England, and Rebic failed to control his rebound. They were off the hook.
But it was a struggle. Another defensive mix up nearly saw a pressing Perisic steal in. Mario Mandzukic saw an effort saved by Pickford. Perisic could only fire over after a poor punch out from the goalkeeper. Times were tough, and even with the introduction of Marcus Rashford to add a counter-attacking threat, Croatia was in the ascendancy in the final minutes.
Time did, inevitably, tick through to extra time.
England hadn’t scored from a corner by this time. They usually do, and eight minutes in, they nearly did. The tactic worked beautifully and John Stones found himself free, but Croatia had Vrsaljko to thank as he heroically headed off the line.
The Three Lions turned to Pickford in the final moments of the first period. A wicked cross found its way to Mandzukic – in the center of the goal, six yards out – but England’s goalkeeper met the ball brilliantly and diverted the Juventus forward’s shot away with his legs.
But England’s young lions were losing their legs and losing their concentration. Ultimately, this team that has charmed a nation for the last month paid for it.
An innocuous header from Perisic found its way to Mandzukic, who this time didn’t miss. It could have been avoided from an England point of view, but this is no standard game we’re talking about. This was a World Cup semi-final.
It was painful in every sense of the word.