The English team crashed out of the world cup after a loss to Croatia in a night of rife emotions.
The expectations had become high with soccer pundits predicting a win for the three lions but that wasn’t to be as some other analysts rightly averred, the team was young and not yet a finished product. They were 22 minutes away from making it back here, before Ivan Perisic grabbed it away But hell, the lions did marvelously well. It just wasn’t to be.
The Croatians on the other hand perhaps were not given a chance to come this far, but right from kick off, the Croats never showed they came as strollers to the global soccer fiesta as they never lost or drew any match before their semi-final match. That itself is a strong statement going into the finals against France on Sunday.
First there is pride, the pride of the England fans who stayed on to applaud the tearful players. That they got this far, this they came this close, and that they did so playing the way they did, with the players they have. The broader judgements can wait but this team has done more than anyone could have hoped for.
There is also sadness, and who knows tonight how long that will take to get over. That this thrilling team could not quite complete a job that they looked, for so much time, to be so assured at. But as the fans stayed in their seats, gone midnight, singing ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, it felt unlikely that this defeat will prompt the same grief, the same soul-searching and pained re-examination of national priorities as semi-final defeats of the past have done. Even if we accept that no England may ever get a better chance than this.
Because England threw everything they had at Croatia tonight, and they lost to a better team. Here, in the biggest game these players will ever play, England produced one half of excellent football, the best that they have played all tournament. They were fast, incisive, assertive and confident. A better version of themselves, of the Gareth Southgate identity, than they have been so far.
England took the lead, deserved it, and held it for more than an hour. They had chances to double their lead, the best to Harry Kane towards the end of the first half.
Unable to keep playing the game they wanted to, England were pushed slowly back. They started to rely on Walker, Maguire and Stones throwing themselves in front of shots, desperately heading the ball away, anything to preserve England’s lead. But no team can rely on that forever, not with this much on the line.
It started to feel ominous, and soon enough the sky caved in. Vrsaljko again had space on the right to cross. Perisic, ghosting in from the left, eluded both Trippier and Walker, and both were slow to react. Perisic stuck out a boot, Walker thought his head would be enough and Croatia were level. A momentary lapse from England, but one that felt as if it had been probable as long as they let the game drift.
It took some luck just for England to make it through to extra-time. Something had to change so Southgate threw on Danny Rose and Eric Dier. Dier even forced a corner, Stones’ header was cleared off the line. Some will fixate on that moment to explain why things went the way they did, but it was just one action, totally at odds with the flow of the game, which was entirely in Croatia’s favour.
It was Mario Mandzukic who killed England off, and they cannot say that they were not warned. At the end of the first half of extra-time, he pounced on a low cross into the box, which Pickford kept out only with typically brilliant instinctive save, bursting off his line to block it. But you cannot survive like that forever.
Mandzukic had the reading of England. He knew they were tired, struggling, and could not hold him back forever. Soon after the restart, Perisic and Trippier challenged for a header on the edge of the box. It looked harmless enough. But as the ball looped towards goal, Manduzkic was sharper on it, more aware, than Maguire and Stones around him. He tucked the ball away before England had woken up.
Finally, the Red Lions came up against a team with more experience and it must be admitted that the better side carried the day.