Two World Cup overachievers produce a classic

apaway Roar Guru

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    England and Croatia are two nations who have put an indelible stamp on the history of football development in Australia, so it was inevitable their semi-final at Russia 2018 would be of more than just passing interest to locals.

    Gareth Southgate has revitalised English football since taking the manager’s job, and has won admirers domestically and abroad for both his tactics and his willingness to incorporate and learn from the best that foreign Premier League managers have brought to the EPL. For many years it seemed that English football had an identity crisis, as English players who thrived in their own league couldn’t translate that into international results, changing their style and ethos when pulling on an England shirt.

    It was as if what happened in the EPL stayed in the EPL and the national team struggled to understand a style of play that would suit them in the big tournaments. Southgate has publicly lauded the contributions that managers like Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have made to the English game and has brought that knowledge into the English system.

    For long-suffering England fans, there seems to be a positive future on the international front, backed up by a youth system that has won both the U17 and World Youth Cups. Southgate himself was of the opinion that his team weren’t ready yet; a young side, selected from 33% of the EPL, with some of his key players not exactly rusted-on starters for their clubs.

    They rode a wave of momentum on the back of a favourable draw and an annoying song to play in the semi-final against a Croatian team who are now in the middle of what could be termed Golden Generation V2. The midfield is run by the Barcelona-Real Madrid connection of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric and if that isn’t enough qualification to say that their semi-final appearance shouldn’t surprise, they have Juventus star Mario Mandzukic leading the line.

    Given the age of the Croatian side, they may look at Russia 2018 as their last chance to shine, but for almost an hour of the semi-final against England, the side collectively resembled an ageing punch-drunk boxer, held up only by instinct and the ring ropes. England could and perhaps should have put the game beyond reach before half-time, the otherwise excellent Harry Kane hitting a post from a metre out.

    Harry Kane takes a penalty

    (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

    When Ivan Perisic snuck a long leg in front of his marker to convert a right-sided cross into a goal in the 68th minute, the shift in energy was palpable. The younger England side began to panic; a couple of misunderstandings between goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and his defenders almost proving costly.

    Croatia, who had come through the nerve-shredding pressure of successive penalty shootouts, were off the ropes, ducking and weaving, jabbing and landing, tired muscles urged on by the collective will of a young nation forged in upheaval.

    As the game entered extra time it was already one of those classic World Cup semi-finals which in more recent times have been hard to come by. It seemed as if the thought of having to go through yet another dose of extra time wearied the Croatian engine room. Luka Modric’s passes were falling short.

    Mario Mandzukic seemed physically unable to run the lines his ball-players needed. Defensively, however, they were rock-solid. Dejan Lovren had been so tormented by Harry Kane in a Premier League game only months ago that he was replaced before halftime. This time, he stood tall alongside the rest of the Croatian back four, allowing the English half as many shots as Croatia themselves mustered.

    Set pieces, England’s forte all tournament, were dealt with, sometimes desperately, but ultimately effectively. Mandzukic’s 109th-minute strike was a body blow England ultimately could not recover from.

    It was a dramatic final five minutes, in which Mandzukic hobbled off to be replaced by Vedran Corluka, while Keiran Trippier, England’s scorer seemingly hours ago when this saga began, was half-carried back to the bench, replaced by nobody because Southgate had already fired all his substitute shots at the resilient Croatians.

    When an exhausted Modric made way for Milan Bedelj, the moments ticked away and Bedelj, perhaps overcome with exuberance, fired in a cross from the left when conventional wisdom would have been to play the ball towards the corner flag.

    Luka Modric

    (Photo by James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

    Less than a minute later, England had a free kick in the kind of position they’d proved lethal at converting all tournament. The defence weathered the set piece and Croatia were through.

    In Sydney, it was rocking in Edensor Park, the King Tomislav Club roof having barely survived the uproar, cevapi and beer breakfasts for the faithful, as they watch their nation take its place in the World Cup final against France on Monday morning. For English fans, its a crushing, yet familiar feeling of high hopes being cruelly shattered, with a very important difference.

    A young team, an intelligent and embracing manager who has taken the best of what the rest of the world has offered in England’s domestic competition and used it to his advantage. In defeat, their future still looks bright.

    Bring on the final of this fantastic tournament.

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    The Crowd Says (9)

    • Roar Rookie

      July 13th 2018 @ 6:22am
      Stevo said | July 13th 2018 @ 6:22am | ! Report

      Agree and nicely summarised apaway. I had come to think during the tournament that given the youth and somewhat lesser experience compared to other teams like Croatia, that this wasn’t quite the time for England. However the future is bright especially under a younger manager who’s prepared to learn from the best of the local and foreign managers.

      As for Croatia, Modric, Rakitic, Mandzukic along with Perisic, Subasic, Lovren etc had the skill and experience to sneak it away from England. That’s how I saw it coming into the game. However France is going to be a test at the highest level and maybe Mbappe, Kante, Griezmann et al will prove to have the edge. It will be a marvelous final. It’s been a great tournament and I’ve had the pleasure of watching games broadcast both here at home and in Europe where pretty much everyone is glued to their screen.

      • July 13th 2018 @ 7:33am
        Max Danger said | July 13th 2018 @ 7:33am | ! Report

        you think Southgate can arrange a cushy draw at the next big tourney?

        • Roar Guru

          July 13th 2018 @ 1:58pm
          apaway said | July 13th 2018 @ 1:58pm | ! Report

          The phrase “you can only play what’s in front of you” comes to mind…

    • July 13th 2018 @ 7:03am
      pete4 said | July 13th 2018 @ 7:03am | ! Report

      In terms of football development in Australia I think we could learn a thing or 2 from Croatia.

      You notice over there they do not have many open fields like here but they do have plenty of smaller basketball size courts (basically everywhere) in the suburbs/towns which kids all play street football on in various forms.

      Think open air futsal which is something we should encourage younger kids to play more of here to constantly improve their technical level

      • July 13th 2018 @ 7:28am
        MQ said | July 13th 2018 @ 7:28am | ! Report

        This is the key point pete, they are playing the game, day and night, 24/7.

        Here in Australia, we pat ourselves on the back when 1 million parents drop off little Johnny and Jill on a Saturday morning for a bit of child minding, before the family gets back together again later that day for the match of the day.

      • Roar Guru

        July 13th 2018 @ 2:00pm
        apaway said | July 13th 2018 @ 2:00pm | ! Report

        “Off-season” small-sided football is growing very rapidly, as more and more all-weather pitches are installed.

      • July 14th 2018 @ 10:23pm
        blie said | July 14th 2018 @ 10:23pm | ! Report

        True. I grew up in Europe and while I played competitively since the age of 7 (two nights a week training and a match on the weekend), I surely played more Football OUTSIDE the club. In parks, schoolyards, car parks, outdoor handball courts, in school and just about everywhere where there were a few meters of space. As most European and South American kids of my generation were doing just about every day of the year.

        I never see kids in Australia play Football anywhere outside the club. Really, NEVER. I don’t know what they do… Play videogames at home? Watch TV?…

        So when European and South American kids are playing 20+hours of Football per week and Aussie kids maybe 5 hours just for the club, it is absolutely logical, that the technical skill is far lower here.

        Technical development happens BEFORE the age of 12. After that it is WAY too late.

    • July 14th 2018 @ 6:53pm
      Kangas said | July 14th 2018 @ 6:53pm | ! Report

      No doubt to be the best requires endless hours of practice. Small sided games or in my youth , half field at the park or backyard games .

      I always thought I had to work on my skills a few hours a day as a youngster, outside of official training, not football but league, but the same principles apply .

      Would love to know how hard Modrić practiced as a youngster compared to a Jordan Henderson type !!!

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