England were ahead before Luka Modrić touched the ball.
In fact, it was from a foul Modrić committed, chasing back and scything down Dele Alli outside the Croatian penalty area, that England took the lead.
Kieran Trippier, one of England’s least known names and one of their best performers, curled a free kick over the wall and into the top corner, before being smothered by a heap of his teammates in a joyous sideline stacks-on.
It was the perfect start, a scarcely believable continuation of England’s fine run of form, a new verse perhaps being written for that earworm song we’ve all been hearing rattling around Twitter these last two weeks.
With the barmy army pumping out pounding drum-and-horn ditties, England threatened with two corners, both of which ended with Harry Maquire applying his vast, hulking forehead violently to pleather.
Raheem Sterling was haring around, sniffing out long balls, Alli and Jesse Lingard’s touch was soft and neat, and the back three were looking assured; the opening 15 minutes provided no compelling evidence Croatia were the better, more accomplished, more likely team, though there was a whiff of that whenever Modrić or Ivan Rakitić rolled their studs over the ball. That whiff would eventually intensify into a rich aroma.
This was not, it is fair to say, the high-spec encounter of the last semi-final; Dejan Lovren’s two agricultural fouls on Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling punctuated the opening half an hour, with slightly overhit passes and wild attempts to retrieve them the other central theme.
Harry Kane fluffed a routine finish; no matter, he was clearly offside.
Then he missed another golden chance; the flag was raised again, though the Spurs striker was clearly level this time.
Two worrying examples that indicated his sniper sights, usually so unerring, weren’t quite adjusted yet. Pickford, whose distribution was – with one exception – startlingly accurate in the first half, was then required to absorb a stinging Ante Rebić shot.
A lovely move with Kane, Alli, and Lingard ended with the latter slapping an open shot wide, a poor miss.
England were repeatedly spearing lofted passes up their right touchline, for Sterling or Lingard, and Domagoj Vida was rather exposed and unassisted by left-back Ivan Strinić, or indeed winger Ivan Perišić during these moments.
As the England speedsters raced onto these balls, the half was racing by, and England had had by far the better of it; a lot of their open play was foiled by a twitchy, jerking inability to weight a final pass, but their energy and positiveness was far more encouraging than the general sluggish malaise blanketing Croatia’s play. Half time arrived, with England on top of both the game and the score.
With 45 minutes separating England from their second World Cup final, and first since 1966, Croatia emerged from the break knowing they had to play with a lot more vigour and invention then they had in the first half. A booking for Mario Mandžukić, and a few wayward early passes poured cold water on these intentions. Maguire was then seen effortlessly and cleanly dispossessing Modrić, two players with about ten weight classes between them.
Half and quarter chances appeared at both ends; Rakitić skied a shot, Kane saw a stooping header cleared off his forehead. The tension was bubbling up, as the hour mark rolled past. Trippier, even outside of his goal, was blossoming on the right hand side, a really quite remarkable player whose athletic prowess is matched only by his ability to swerve in venomous crosses.
Croatia’s momentum was rising and falling, built up by fine approach play from Modrić or Rakitić, and then stifled by a poor cross from their more advanced colleagues. But the rhythm was there, all it needed was a moment of clarity.
Ivan Perišić provided that moment, connecting with a swooping Šime Vrsaljko cross, prodding the ball past Pickford with his studs raised, nipping in before Kyle Walker’s header could clear. It was, really, the first instance of a Croatian attacker showing some thirst in the final third, and it came to greet one of the few promising crosses to be hit by a Croatian full back.
Croatia was frothing now, and Perišić hit the post, nearly punishing a very tremulous mix up between John Stones and Pickford. Rebić could not convert the rebound. There was the very real, present sense England could collapse and concede a rapidfire double.
Marcus Rashford was brought on for Sterling. Modrić was controlling things now, and making dangerous runs into the box. Lingard had a fine chance to retake the lead, but screwed his shot across the face. The tempo had quickened to a breathless pulse now. Jordan Henderson looped a volley high and wide.
Ten minutes remained in normal time now, and the scored were locked, ready for either team to turn a shoulder, take a deep breath, and crash their way through into the final.
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Croatia were sensing England could be put away here, and so were committing men forward, which was opening up space for England on the break. In non-counter play though, England were now finding it very hard to work their way out of their own half without punting the ball long; there was no English Modrić to becalm the situation and conduct the play under pressure.
Mandžukić and Perišić had chances to snatch the lead, but snatched at their chances.
Every misplaced Croatian pass was an agony, such was the opportunity for them to land a knockout punch with their opponents on the ropes.
England invited Croatia all the way up to the edge of their box, and were given a reprieve after a lengthy passing sequence when Dejan Lovren, showing his ever-impressive decision making, chose to smash the ball 15 metres high and wide from 30 metres out.
England then won a free kick.
Could they grab this game, now in added time? Kane could not connect properly with the header, and the ball was glanced out for a goal kick. Extra time it was, then. The Croatian players, some limping and heaving, walked over to congregate. The Englishmen, almost as wearily, did the same.
Danny Rose came on for England, replacing a completely exhausted Ashley Young. Extra time began, and England took control of the early stages, with Rashford a bright spot down the right hand side. Ivan Strinić went down, a tweaked groin; not to worry, Croatia still had all their subs remaining, and so Josip Pivarić came on.
Rebić hacked down Rose, was booked, and England had another set piece. It came to nothing. Jordan Henderson, having matched up as ably as could be expected with Modrić , trotted off and Eric Dier came on. The new sub won a corner within 15 seconds; Croatia hadn’t really entered this extra time period yet.
Stones had a header cleared off the line from the corner, so nearly another set piece goal for the Three Lions. Rebić was replaced by Andrej Kramarić. Modrić was seen literally prodding the ball to an opponent standing right in front of him – the match had reached a very bedraggled stage.
Croatia had a fine surge right at the end of the first period, and Mandžukić saw Pickford knee away a chance taken right in front of goal. Pickford spat some choice words down at the Croatian striker, who was lying prone after the skirmish. Half time, of extra time, was blown.
Croatia began the second period with a corner. It was an excellent short corner, but the shot it forged was poor. Would Croatia dominate the second half of extra time like they had the second haf of normal time?
An English clearance was skied into the air. Perišić leapt for a header. The ball spun back in between back line and goalkeeper, and Mandžukić was the first to react. He curled the ball past Pickford, and it certainly looked like a winning goal. England had switched off, for a half second, and the lapse was brutally punished. 12 minutes remained. Jamie Vardy was brought on.
Mandžukić went down twice with cramp, and was subbed. Trippier was grimacing in pain too, as Croatia prepared for a corner. He was helped off the pitch, and England were out of subs.
Time ticked away, and English breath was held. A free kick was won by Alli, with seconds to go. Pickford didn’t go up. Could this be a miracle in the making?
No. Croatia cleared. The whistle went. The fabled homecoming was cancelled. The team representing a country of 4 million will meet France in the final. England will play for third.