The glorious, beer-soaked Russian summer that changed English football and the England team forever is at an end, and the old story of 1966 will remain, for four more years at least, the greatest ever told, although it took one hell of a World Cup semi-final to keep it that way.
England are out of Russia 2018, beaten in extra time by Mario Mandzukic’s goal, but not in that feeble, unreliable way that so many England teams have gone in the past. There were times when Gareth Southgate’s young team could have won this game, a window in the first half when it felt like they could run away with it while Croatia, like all good teams hung on and waited for the wind to change. A miraculous sporting nation of just 4.1 million souls, they will play France in the World Cup final on Sunday.
It is, after all, not coming home. It is not even coming back for a brief look-around and a robust discussion about the relative merits of a back three without a natural left-sided defender. Soon, when the Premier League season begins afresh this may feel like a dream, a dizzying tour of sun-drenched old Soviet Union strongholds watched through a mist of beer tossed over heads in box parks and conventional parks too. Only the third World Cup semi-final in 68 years for the England team and yet still a nagging regret at missed opportunities.
Afterwards, Gareth Southgate seemed reluctant to draw conclusions and he will know that there was something of the old England in the way that his team were rattled, going from a side that looked like it could not lose this semi-final to one just about hanging on. This Croatia team, 20 years on from that semi-final defeat to France, had the tournament ringcraft that every England World Cup team bar one has lacked, vulnerable for the second time in the knockout stages to a goal late in the day.
When Kieran Trippier swept in a free-kick after five minutes it soon felt like England might dominate a Croatia bent out of shape by the running of Southgate’s players who were occupying the places that Luka Modric was supposed to be. The little maestro was enclosed by the England midfield and it would take until the second half when the Croatia captain began figuring out the route, emerging into space at last.
— Telegraph Football (@TeleFootball) July 11, 2018
Not just him but Ivan Perisic too, who scored the equaliser on 68 minutes and dragged his team back into the game, making the second for Mandzukic. If he can do it against France after three extra time periods in the knockout stages, then Perisic could yet eclipse Modric as the leading player in this team and this tournament. Although it never looked that way in the first half with England in the ascendancy and Croatia wobbling all over pitch.
Their left-back Ivan Strinic was falling apart, and in attack Raheem Sterling felt just one clean strike on goal from football immortality. Dejan Lovren benefited from the early leniency of Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir in a period of the game when the Liverpool defender was committing fouls he felt he had no option but to make. He shoved Kane and kicked Sterling in the space of six minutes but did not get the the yellow card that would have made him vulnerable.
The England captain still looks the most likely candidate to finish the World Cup as the golden boot winner but this was a strange evening for him, in which he missed one first half chance and then faded after the break. He is judicious in possession and draws the foul well, but his reputation is built on goals and when he was presented with his best chance of the game on 29 minutes it was saved by goalkeeper Danjiel Subasic.
That was not the only miss, there was one for Jesse Lingard too later in the first half when Kane drove forward with the ball and then Dele Alli laid it off to England’s little fizzing energy-drink of a midfielder. Lingard’s shot was stroked wide of Subasic’s post and again you wondered whether these players knew that, looming in the future, there would inevitably be a time when Croatia seized the initiative and had their chances too.
England’s goal had come early, from a premium free-kick conceded by Modric of all people who clipped the heels of Dele. Even then at that stage, England had worked it well from Lingard’s tidy knockdown and suddenly there was a great chance, on the edge of the box and central. Trippier stroked the free-kick over the wall and past Subasic’s right hand like he was slotting the last ball in the garden through an inviting open garden shed door.
After 28 minutes, the left-back Strinic passed the ball straight into touch on his side of the pitch and his manager Zlatko Dalic allowed his despair to show itself for a second before composing himself. By the end of the night Dalic, a former footballer who never won an international cap and coached most recently in the Gulf states, was in his red chequer-board shirt and describing how he watched the first three games in the 1998 tournament as a fan.
The game changed after the break and as it went into the final ten minutes, England’s share of possession in the second half dropped to 30 per cent. They were being pressed much higher up the pitch by Croatia and although they found their way again in the first period of extra time, England never rediscovered the form of the first half
When Sime Vrsaljko picked the ball up on the right and whipped in a cross on 68 minutes it felt like the kind that England had dealt with all night. Kyle Walker dived for it and with the ball at shoulder height, Perisic jabbed a foot in above the head of the defender and steered it past Jordan Pickford. Minutes later Perisic hit the post. He went close again.
In extra time there were chances that will be forgotten in time, including a John Stones header cleared off the line by Vrsaljko. A great save from Pickford from Mandzukic’s shot. Then with six minutes of the 120 left Perisic out-jumped Trippier for a header, and Mandzukic was first off the mark, burying a shot past Pickford before England reacted. The margins are fine, but the bigger picture was clear by then, and it did not look good for England.
That'll do it for our blog, I think
Hard lines, England. They tried their level best but they couldn't get that second when they were having the best of it. Ultimately the passing, composure and experience of Croatia ground them down. Very disappointing.
But no disgrace! England did far better in the tournament than anyone could have hoped. And, for a while, Gareth Southgate and his team allowed us all to dream. And that should not be sniffed at.
Thanks for following with us. Goodnight.
Here's Jason Burt on Jordan Henderson on Luka Modric
This was the biggest challenge of Jordan Henderson’s career. The challenge of stopping the best midfielder on the planet in a World Cup semi-final.
The fact that Henderson was probably England’s best player and yet was pushed to the absolute limit showed just how good Luka Modric is. The fact Modric got even better when Henderson went off showed how well the Liverpool captain did.
The legs were tired, the hamstring was tight but Henderson strained himself to try and not give in to that even if he was stretched to breaking point with the workload demanded of him.
In the first-half time and again Henderson just got himself in front of Modric enough to stop him opening England up. Modric worked his way into the penalty area, shaped to shoot, cross, or cut the ball back but Henderson jockeyed and blocked and made the angle disappear. Then on half-time he did it again as Modric appeared to find the purchase for a shot – only for Henderson to thwart him.
Matt on the match
— Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) July 11, 2018
Souey not afraid of putting the boot in
Of course he isn't! He was on something called BeIn Sports this evening
— beIN SPORTS (@beINSPORTS) July 11, 2018
"You can't win the big trophies, you can't dominate football matches, you can't put yourself in a position where you are not giving the ball away unless you've got good players in midfield who can keep the ball.
"I come back to Lingard and Dele Alli - two players who want to get on the end of things after there has been clever play by somebody else.
"They don't want to get involved in keeping the ball and dominating possession.
"And the make up of the team was all wrong tonight. All wrong tonight. When they come up against a decent team, I think it's inevitable that they were going to struggle tonight."
He says that England played the worst (Panama) and the second worst (Tunisia) teams in it. Oh Souey.
Video reaction from a fan in Russia
All hail the Croatians
A game that needed to be won by England when they were in the ascendancy in the first half. You have to marvel at Croatia: a population half the size of London & in a World Cup final
— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) July 11, 2018
Not bad for a little 'un!
Respect to Croatia too. They beat Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland in the group stage - and have KOd Denmark, Russia and England. With 4.1million people.
— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) July 11, 2018
Theresa May watching the match
She really is an extraordinary person.
— Alastair Campbell (@campbellclaret) July 11, 2018
Excellent quotes from Modric
Sticking the boot in to the English media/punditocracy.
Strong words from Luka Modric post-match:
"English journalists, pundits from television, they underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake. All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying 'ok, today we will see who will be tired'" pic.twitter.com/Rxyv4WA03c
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) July 11, 2018
Loads to enjoy in this piece from Molly McElwee at the Boxpark in Croydon.
A cacophony of noise can be heard as you get off the train at East Croydon station, the sort of atmosphere you might expect around a stadium. “Football’s coming home…” “Please don’t take me home…” “Southgate you’re the one…”
Instead, next door is Boxpark Croydon, a warehouse venue where 1,200 England fans gathered to watch England’s first World Cup semi-final appearance in 28 years. Not a Croatia fan in sight – not a hand without a pint either (unless it was flying through the air).
Huge screen up, DJ blasting the tunes you might expect – World in Motion, Three Lions – and perhaps some of the more surprising hits of this summer of football (namely Atomic Kitten’s Whole Again). A crowd of united England shirts, pint-stained white, the Umbro classic of 1990, and an army of Gareth Southgate inspired waistcoat-wearing fans singing along. All were the lucky few to grab tickets which sold out within 10 minutes online.
Well worth a read. Shame, there will be some hangovers tomorrow. Also: the manager of Boxpark in Croydon is called David Byrne! Presumably not of Talking Heads fame.
This does not have to be the end of the road!
For those saying England have blown their chances and this team won’t get better chance to win a major tournament, France lost in the euro final on home soil and, 2 years later, they are in the World Cup final looking better for the experience. Teams can get better esp young ones
— Luke Edwards (@LukeEdwardsTele) July 11, 2018
Some fans are very sad and upset
Gareth reaction piece by Matt Law
“The reaction from the fans at the end shows you everything they’ve given,” said Southgate. “We’ve come an incredibly long way in a short space of time. The whole thing is beyond where we thought we might go. Tonight we weren’t quite there. But the team will be stronger for it."
For England, a match on Saturday
A third-place play-off against Belgium.
Not the weekend assignment they wanted, but it'll seem better by the weekend, maybe. I hope they're not too devastated, the players. They have done themselves, the national side, English football and perhaps even the country as a whole a lot of good these last few weeks. We got a run for our money.
"It did think about coming home but it didn't quite make it tonight. Goodnight."
And now a closing montage soundtracked by some woman with a voice like a six-year-old butchering 'My Way' as is the current fashion.
I didn’t think there could be a worse version of My Way than all the others but there is.
— Richard Coles (@RevRichardColes) July 11, 2018
Well done lads. You gave it your all pic.twitter.com/kXEDaJbwNo
— Alan Smith (@9smudge) July 11, 2018
Sometimes you can go ahead too early. We needed the second goal to kill of the tie.
Croatia have got some top quality players. Maybe a high foot for their goal.
We've got to keep our heads up. I had a lump in my throat with the fans applauding us at the end.
Another politics man gets involved
— Martin Selmayr (@MartinSelmayr) July 11, 2018
Probably not the right time, like he says
Probably not the right time / fitting the national mood etc, so apologies...but what a missed opportunity. England after HT completely outplayed for 75mins and didn't try to alter anything that might have changed the balance of play. Left two up top, barely involved. Such a shame
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) July 11, 2018
"I think this England team have a lot to do. These players need to be at top clubs, I see a lot of them week in week out in the League and they are at middling clubs.
"I made the point a few days ago, you have to focus on one game at a time, I heard people all talk about finals, football's coming home. You all were planning the parades."
Actual shouting match with Ian Wright! Wright: "We were happy! Why weren't you happy for us being happy?!"
Roy Keane is just awful I am sorry
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) July 11, 2018
My pal just sent me this ���� pic.twitter.com/qICu4SadWt
— Iain Robertson (@IainR0bertson) July 11, 2018
Gareth Southgate interviewed by Gabriel Clarke
I don't know if we deserved better. first half we were really good and maybe could have got another.
Second half, they got the goal their tails were up. Maybe we had a little bit of inexperience.
He praises the reaction of the fans
No issues with Harry Kane before the start of the game.
We are where we are as a team. We have come an incredibly long way in a short period of time, beyond where we thought we could go.
At the end we thought we could stem the tide but there were not clear changes that we thought that we could change things.