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Croatia punches World Cup final ticket in thriller

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Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic scores the goal that beat England in the 2018 World Cup semifinals. (AP)

In the beginning, it was quintessential England. In the end, it was quintessential Mario Mandzukic; it is the end of England’s magical World Cup run; and it is the continuation of Croatia’s.

World Cup final with a dramatic extra-time 2-1 victory over the English on Wednesday. Mandzukic’s 108th-minute goal booked a date with France in Sunday’s final:

England had gone ahead early, but lost control of the match in the second half, then lost it in the 30 added minutes.

Croatia became the first team in World Cup history to win three consecutive games in extra time or on penalties. It also became the second-smallest nation to ever make the World Cup final. And in the end, it deserved the most famous win in its nation’s brief history.

England strikes again from dead ball

England entered the game having scored seven of its 11 World Cup goals directly or indirectly from free kicks and corners. Less than five minutes into Wednesday’s game, Kieran Trippier made it eight of 12.

Trippier sent a delicate free kick spinning over the Croatian wall and into the back of the net:

England has been tremendous on set pieces because it has put a tremendous amount of time and energy into set pieces. And Trippier’s goal was no exception. The location England players in and around the wall was all part of the plan. They helped screen Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. They were the reason Subasic didn’t see the ball until it was up and over the wall – the reason his incomplete dive got nowhere close to Trippier’s shot.

But the goal wasn’t just about the set piece itself. It was about the midfield connection that won the free kick.

The Dele Alli-Jesse Lingard connection

Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, two of England’s more exciting players, have had up-and-down tournaments. But they played pivotal roles on Wednesday, each in his own way.

Their most influential moments enabled the goal. Lingard won a second ball in the attacking half, and with his first touch spun around Marcelo Brozovic. Alli, reading the play, crept forward into the space that Luka Modric’s advanced midfield role opened up. Modric was late tracking back, and fouled Alli from behind:

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(Original video: Fox Sports Go)

Later in the half, Alli set up Lingard at the top of the box, but the Manchester United midfielder got his technique wrong:

England was the better team in the first half, and was decently dangerous from open play.

Raheem Sterling was excellent. He was everywhere. As he had against Sweden, he stretched the Croatian defense vertically and horizontally, driving England forward. But the Three Lions missed their one golden chance to extend the lead:

Harry Kane’s chance

Harry Kane will, in all likelihood, win the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup. He’s had a pretty good tournament. But he really should have put England 2-0 up:

The assistant referee’s flag was up on the far side, but Kane was onside. The goal would have stood. Instead, Kane would be left to rue the miss.

Croatia and Ivan Perisic roar back

England seemed fairly comfortable for over an hour. Then it crumbled.

Minutes after taking an Ivan Perisic shot to the groin area, Kyle Walker failed to attack a cross with enough urgency. Perisic beat Walker to it with a flying volley – and perhaps with a high boot that should have seen the goal disallowed:

Suddenly, England seemed shellshocked. Minutes later, a defensive miscommunication and shoddy clearance presented Perisic with another chance. He exploded toward the endline with a stepover, and flashed a left-footed shot past Jordan Pickford and flush off the far post.

England players went from calm on the ball to jittery and sloppy. Pickford went from commanding to shaky, both with his feet and his hands.

Croatia, once wayward in its search for an equalizer, was decidedly on top for the final 20 minutes. It was the team pushing for a winner as the 90 minutes and stoppage time petered out. It became the second team in World Cup history to play three consecutive extra-time matches. But it hadn’t made a single sub, and didn’t look a lick tired.

Extra time

England had only made one sub – Marcus Rashford for Sterling. It used its second to open the extra session: Danny Rose for Ashley Young. Croatia finally made its first in the 95th minute due to injury.

With Eric Dier also on for Jordan Henderson and bringing fresh legs to England’s midfield, the Three Lions recovered and steadied themselves. And they had the first great chance. A classic corner play got John Stones free at the near post, eight yards out. His header was destined for the far post – probably literally – but was cleared off the line by Sime Vrsaljko.

At the other end, Croatia nearly pulled ahead right at the end of the first 15-minute period. Perisic, the best player on the field, whipped in a wonderful ball from the left, into the so-called corridor of uncertainty. Mario Mandzukic, sneaking in between England center backs, latched onto it. But Pickford charged off his line to make a point-blank save.

Mandzukic, though, stayed in despite the clash, and got the better of Pickford a few minutes into the second extra-time period to send Croatia to the final.

Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

 

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