MOSCOW: England staked their claim for the World Cup final berth a little too early in the game in a little too astonishing manner.
Moscow’s Luzhniki was dressed in red and white as the St George’s Cross fluttered against the chequered flag of Croatia.
Sniffing the smell of history that’s going to be made, the fans turned up in numbers just to share the landmark moment in the sport. It was England’s biggest game since they were beaten by West Germany at this stage in Italia ’90.
It was the Croatians who danced till the last after a late revival saw them book their maiden World Cup final.
Kieran Trippier had shut one half of the stadium with a peach of a free-kick, the very first of the match barely five minutes on. It was England’s eighth from a dead ball situation.
Call them one-trick ponies, but are there any on the stage who is playing it better? The Tottenham winger curled his right footer with rare precision far away from Danijel Subasic’s flailing arms.
Pinching one’s own self back from wonderland would have been natural but Gareth Southgate’s England has redefined the normal. Had Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard could keep their wits, England would have wrapped up the World Cup semi-final in the first session itself. Instead they left it for some late drama befitting the occasion.
England’s full court-press marked Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric out to extinction till Ivan Perisic ignited a fightback deep into the second session. The Inter Milan star met Sime Vrsaljko’s cross over and above Walker’s head. Scores were level and England started to look vulnerable as Perisic again hits the upright giving Walker, a drop of his shoulder. Croatians have woken up, finally.
Pushing the game to another tortuous half hour, Modric found an extra pair of lungs when the others were gasping. Young England, dearth on experience, finally caved in.
It was Perisic who won a header that fell inside the box and the tiring English defence suffered brain freeze. Mandzukic reacted the quickest, pinging the ball past Pickford, who had denied him with a brave save, minutes before.
The goal killed the contest for good as players dropped like flies hit by cramps. Only Modric strode along the Luzhniki pitch like the last of the Mohicans.
With two minutes to go, Modric was substituted so that he gets the biggest applause.
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