Here's the most painful part of England's World Cup semifinal loss

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When heartbroken English fans wake up Thursday morning after a long night of crying into their pints, the most difficult part of their grief to digest following the Three Lions’ 2-1 extra-time loss to Croatia in the World Cup semifinals Wednesday in Moscow will be the unshakable feeling that England had this one in the bag.

There’s no telling how long that suspicion will last. Because for all the love this young and dynamic England team has earned – and earn it they did – in taking a country badly in need of some good news on the international stage on an unforgettable ride over the last month, reaching their first World Cup semifinal in almost 30 years, there’s no guarantee they’ll get a better chance to play for a major title.

England looked well on their way to Sunday’s finale against France early on against Croatia. Defender Kieran Trippier put Gareth Southgate’s squad ahead just five minutes in with yet another a goal from a set piece, a direct free kick that settled into the top right corner of Danijel Subasic’s net. And while the young Lions – tied with Les Bleus as the greenest in the whole tournament – barely threatened for most of the next hour, it felt like Trippier’s early strike would hold up against a tired team that had played almost another full match in winning its first two knockout games from the penalty spot.

Ivan Perisic’s equalizer in the 68th minute changed everything. Croatia had been growing into the game since the start of the second half, and whatever fatigue Zlatko Dalic’s side may have been fighting it disappeared the second Perisic karate-kicked Sime Vrsaljko’s cross past keeper Jordan Pickford. Suddenly, England looked like the exhausted ones.

England head coach Gareth Southgate, center left, embraces England’s Dele Alli at the end of the semifinal match between Croatia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
England head coach Gareth Southgate, center left, embraces England’s Dele Alli at the end of the semifinal match between Croatia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

England’s chances of advancing still seemed decent enough as long as the  score remained deadlocked. Surely their youth and the extra rest would pay off at some point during 30 additional minutes. Surely Harry Kane, the tourney leader with six goals, or another instant hero would convert the one chance they needed. And it almost happened early in the extra session when John Stones rose to meet a corner kick, only for Vrsaljko to clear the goal-bound header off the line.

Even in penalties, you wouldn’t have counted this England team out. Not after they conquered their shootout demons against Colombia in the Round of 16, and not after Southgate and his staff went to great lengths to ensure his players would embrace the tiebreaker if England got the opportunity to change its luck. But when Mario Mandzukic caught Stones sleeping with just over 10 minutes to play, burying a left-footed shot under Pickford, England’s World Cup dream was over. Croatia deserved the victory. Luka Modric and Co. will be a formidable opponent for France. For England, the end still felt premature.

“It’s going to hurt for a while,” captain Kane said afterward. “There’s a lot of ifs and buts. In big games it’s small margins. I reckon there’s a lot we could’ve done better.”

Look, this England team will be around for a while. They’re a likable group with a likable manager, and they can really play. These Lions have more technical ability and less ego than any English team in memory, and that includes the side that lost a semi on penalties to West Germany in 1990. They were a joy to watch.

But the cold hard truth is that England squandered its chance to reach the final. Their four-nation group was so weak that Southgate could afford to rest his starters after wins against Tunisia and Panama. They faced Colombia, Sweden and Croatia in the knockout phase, all good teams but none of them a traditional power like Germany or Italy or Brazil, let alone France or Uruguay. Hell, the Netherlands lost a semifinal on spot-kicks four years ago and didn’t even qualify for this World Cup.

With the experience England picked up during this competition, they should be battle tested enough to compete for the trophy at Qatar 2022. The talent is there. Then again, World Cups rarely go according to plan. England won’t sneak up on anyone next time, and they’ll be hard-pressed to get a better draw.

“Obviously it’s been great to get to this stage and we know we’ve done everyone proud, but we wanted to go on and win it [all],” Kane added later on. “We felt we were good enough.”

For all the England fans who feel the same, that has to be the hardest part to stomach.

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