Sputnik 2018: Super Mario spoils England homecoming; Croatia set up revenge match with France

England football fans started the day singing “It’s coming home”; but they will end it crooning “Closing Time.”

A predatory finish by Croatian forward Mario Mandzukic in extra time separated the two nations in today’s semifinal and set up a World Cup final date with France on Sunday. The only other time Croatia ever made it to the final four, they were edged 2-1 by France, after a controversial Lilian Thuram winner in the 1998 World Cup.

Photo: Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic (left) steers the winning goal past England defender John Stones (right) and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, during their World Cup semifinal meeting on 11 July 2018.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)

Now, 20 years later, the crop of 2018 have a chance to avenge their childhood heroes. It is a remarkable story for a country of four million—a population that is a fraction short of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica’s populace combined.

The final score in today’s semifinal read Croatia 2, England 1. On paper, it was close. But, in reality, only one team played by like potential world beaters; and it was not the fellahs with “Three Lions” on their chests.

Thrilled by their surprisingly straightforward progress through the knockout rounds, England got off to a dream start, as right wing back Kieran Trippier curled a brilliant free kick into top corner, after just five minutes.

But then, like young men promoted beyond their level of competence, England did not quite seem to know what to do next.

The Croatia trio of Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric are all former European Champions League winners—Modric lifted that illustrious trophy four times in the last five years.

Photo: England right back Kieran Trippier (left) curls home a brilliant free kick during World Cup semifinal action against Croatia on 11 July 2018.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)

In contrast, Jesse Lingard’s 14 minute run out n Manchester United’s success in the second tier Europa League competition was the closest anyone in coach Gareth Southgate’s starting team had come to glory outside of their domestic competition.

Shell-shocked, Croatia looked to be there for the taking in the first half hour, as England fizzed and beat them to every 50/50 ball. But, like the bashful boy at his school’s May fiesta, the Three Lions just would not ask the pretty, blushing girl for a dance.

Croatia were anything but shy. And Ivan Perisic’s equaliser was a case in point, as he nipped ahead of England defender Kyle Walker, in the 68th minute, to finish with a strike that was part-volley, part-roundhouse kick.

A schoolboy coach would tell you that you should always meet the ball at its highest point. But Walker’s wandering concentration had looked a liability since the interval.

Twice, he put his goalkeeper Jordan Pickford under pressure with questionable back passes while he somehow got himself booked for refusing to give the ball back for a Croatia throw. It was like watching a car accident in slow motion.

Photo: Nah, I ent giving you the ball… You’re playing too good!
England defender Kyle Walker (left) is about to be booked after refusing to give the ball to Croatia midfielder Ivan Perisic for a throw, during World Cup semifinal action on 11 July 2018.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)

And what about England captain and forward Harry Kane? The strapping number nine already seems destined to become the World Cup’s first ever Golden Boot winner without a single goal from open play—or not an intentional one anyway.

His six items so far comprise of: two penalties against Panama, one penalty against Colombia, two headers from set pieces against Tunisia and a freakish item against Panama—when a shot by teammate Ruben Loftus-Cheek hit his heel before beating the opposing goalkeeper.

Today, Kane’s luck ran out.

In the 30th minute, Lingard played Kane behind enemy lines with only opposing goalkeeper Danijel Subasic for company. But the Tottenham striker offered no more than catching practice for the Croatian custodian.

It turned out to be the only save that Subasic had to make in 120 minutes of football.

Stones threatened once with a firm header from a corner kick, which was cleared by opposing right back Sime Vrsaljko. But the final game statistics showed that Croatia had 22 shots to 11 and, goals apart, seven attempts on target to one from England—along with 57 percent ball possession.

Photo: Hi-yah!
Croatia midfielder Ivan Perisic (second from right) beats England defender Kyle Walker to the ball to pull his team level, during their World Cup semifinal contest on 11 July 2018.
(Copyright Carl Recine/Reuters)

And as Modric glided across the field like a busy engineer, building intricate patterns with his passes, England players seemed to be taking the “Neymar challenge” as they flopped to the ground at every opportunity, pleading for free kicks.

Somewhere in Manchester, former England 1966 World Cup winner Bobby Charlton must have bowed his head in shame.

While Modric did the blueprints, spritely winger, Perisic, was Croatia’s foreman.

In the 71st minute, the Inter Milan winger hit the upright, after pouncing on a Stones error and breezing past Walker. He threatened again in the 84th minute but failed to hit the target, following a weak punched clearance by Pickford. And, in the 106th minute, Perisic conjured up a wonderful chance for Mandzukic, who was denied by an equally glorious save by the England goalkeeper.

It was as though Perisic were wearing roller skates; or had borrowed France midfielder N’Golo Kante’s teleport machine.

And Kane? The England captain might as well have been wearing pyjamas to match his languid shift on top.

Photo: Nah, set pieces my thing…
England forward and captain Harry Kane has a word with a Croatian opponent during their World Cup semifinal meeting on 11 July 2018.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)

If anyone could patch a phone call through to Southgate at that point, it would have been Anton Chigurh—that unforgettable villain from No Country for Old Men.

“You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?” he would have asked, rhetorically.

In the 108th minute, England’s resistance finally cracked. Walker started a game of impromptu head tennis with Perisic and the latter player craftily placed the ball behind the opposing backline.

England sweeper John Stones, as dozy as his skipper, took a fraction of a second to react. He might as well have taken a year.

Mandzukic was on it like a flash and stuck the knife in with the nervelessness of a serial assassin.

In Croatia’s exuberant celebrations, the players almost turned a photographer into a rug, after inadvertently piling on top of the lensman.

Photo: Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic (second from right) celebrates next to a scrum of media photographers during their World Cup semifinal contest with England on 11 July 2018.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)

Presumably, he came off better than Belizean Fernando Oliva, who discovered the hard way that playing the role of bouncy castle for soca diva Destra Garcia is not as much fun as it sounds.

The photographer survived. But England’s World Cup run did not.

“Closing time. You don’t have to go home; but you can’t… stay… here…”

2018 World Cup


(Tuesday 10 July)

France 1 (Samuel Umtiti 50), Belgium 0, Saint Petersburg;

(Wednesday 11 July)

England 1 (Kieran Trippier 5), Croatia 2 (Ivan Perisic 68, Mario Mandzukic 109), Moscow.

Photo: Save boy!
England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford (right) makes a brilliant save to deny Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic (centre) during their World Cup semifinal clash on 11 July 2018.
Mandzukic would not be denied for long, though, as he eventually got the goal to put Croatia into their first final.
(Copyright FIFA/Getty)


(Saturday 14 July)

Belgium vs England, 10am, Saint Petersburg;


(Sunday 15 July)

France vs Croatia, 11am, Moscow.

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  1. Where england got3 lions from good they f lose

  2. So sad this was a fresh team with an intelligent experienced coach so sorry stay together and bond in practice as you play who knows”2022

  3. “The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield but when we pressed them it turned out that they haven’t,” Vrsaljko said.

  4. So glad to see that England got a whoop arse. Their analyst on ESPN were talking as if their team was the best thing since slice bread…..

  5. We lost fair and square, good luck Croatia for the final.

  6. England doesn’t have a Modric — few teams do — but they have to learn how to control games better against top-class teams. Had Southgate’s players faced a Brazil, France, Uruguay or Portugal before this stage, they might not have made it so far because the lack of service to Harry Kane would really have told against such high-quality opposition

  7. Mario Mandžukić Stunned Real at home in the Second leg of CL. Ramos, Marcelo, Varane and Carvajal. Could France defence stop him?

  8. This article has good content and very true. Don’t forget Mario cause havoc at Real in the second leg against a defence that consists of Ramos, Marcelo, Varane and Carvajal. Does France have defence to stop him?

  9. England’s run to the semis was against mediocre competition, (it was in their interest to lose against Belgium). First game against a stronger team and they fold.

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