There was hope. Then suddenly it was gone, extinguished by an extra-time goal, a swipe of Mario Mandzukics left boot, the biggest of moments in the biggest of matches. Englands World Cup fairytale reached its unhappy ending in Moscow last night with a semi-final defeat to Croatia, a rude awakening to a dream of a tournament.
England came within 23 minutes of reaching a first World Cup final for half a century, by virtue of Kieran Trippiers majestic early free-kick, only for Ivan Perisic, their tormentor for 120 agonising minutes, to equalise for a resurgent Croatia. Then – as in Italia 90 and Euro 96 – the last four proved to be the Three Lions last stand. At least this time it wasnt on penalties.
Supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium sang “Dont Look Back In Anger” long after the final whistle, a distillation of the mood that greeted this defeat. England never expected to be in the final until suddenly they did – and then it was over. Football isnt coming home after all, not yet anyway, but there are no recriminations, no scapegoats; only a sense that this may just be the start of something.
Once he had finished comforting each and every one of his crestfallen players and staff, Gareth Southgate pitched his message just right. “Weve come a long way in a short period of time,” he told ITV. “Its probably beyond where we thought we were able to go, but well be stronger for that. We were so close to what was probably unimaginable at the start.”
The truth is that England had Croatia at their mercy in the first half, but there was a little too much mercy about their finishing. Captain Harry Kane wasted a gem of a chance to add the second, side-footing a shot against goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and then seeing his follow-up pushed onto the post and loop clear. Jesse Lingard then missed the target altogether when teed up 20 yards out by Dele Alli.
But as so often over the last few weeks in Russia, Englands level plunged after the interval. Their authority evaporated, panic set in among the defence and the Croatia half-chances that they had previously snuffed out began to become more pronounced.
Mandzukic struck the winner for Croatia in the 109th minute (Source: Getty)
Only a Kyle Walker block stopped a goal-bound effort from Perisic, although he wouldnt be denied much longer. The Inter Milan winger got in front of Walker to meet Sime Vrsaljkos cross from the right with a distinctly high boot and guide it past Jordan Pickford. Perisic beat Pickford again moments later but his low shot came back off the post and Ante Rebic shot straight into the goalkeepers arms.
Against Colombia, England had got away with their second-half slump. And although they survived until extra-time here – indeed they might have won it in the 90th minute when Kane miscued a tricky header, or the 99th when John Stoness effort was cleared off the line by Vrsaljko – there was an inevitability about Croatias winner when it came in the 109th minute.
Croatia were expected to show fatigue from playing extra-time for a third match in 11 days, but they were immense. Perisic was indefatigable and Mandzukic a battering ram. The centre-forward took a jarring blow himself from Pickford as the England No1 blocked his effort in the first period of extra-time but he got up off the canvas and minutes later proved more alert than Stones when Perisic headed the ball back towards goal.
“It hurts,” said Kane. “I dont know what else to say. It just hurts.” The pain is heightened by a sense of an opportunity missed; the draw opened up as it rarely does for England to at least reach the final in Russia and, for all the youthful exuberance of Kane, Alli, Lingard, Raheem Sterling, Stones, Pickford and Harry Maguire, they ultimately ran out of steam.
Not before they had done so much, though. In four weeks they made the country fall back in love with the England team, feel pride in the players and manager representing them on the international stage, and feel excited about watching their games. Its no mean feat. They did enough to suggest there will be other tournaments, other semi-finals, maybe even finals. There is hope.