Croatia entered the final of the FIFA World Cup for the first time as a late goal from striker Mario Mandzukic helped them overcome a combative England with a 2-1 victory here on Wednesday to set-up a title-decider against France.
Croatia, featuring in a World Cup semi-final only for the second time after a gap of 20 years, needed a goal from Mandzukic in the 109th minute from close range after left winger Ivan Perisic (68th minute) cancelled out Kieran Trippier’s goal for England in the fifth minute from a free-kick.
England, bidding to enter the final for the first time since their World Cup-winning campaign in 1966, couldn’t cope up with a stirring comeback from an experienced Croatian side which conceded just inside five minutes.
England expectedly fielded an unchanged lineup from the one which beat Colombia on penalties and defeated Sweden. England exerted early pressure as Luka Modric brought down Dele Alli on the edge of Croatia’s penalty area, resulting in a free-kick. Full-back Trippier bent home a 20-yard free-kick to the top right corner of Danijel Subasic’s goal.
It was a very quick blow for Croatia, who had brought in Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozovic to sit in front of the back four, with Hoffenheim attacker Andrej Kramaric relegated to the bench to counter England’s fast and direct attacking football.
England continued to press high and threaten Croatian defence with set-pice situations and after conceding the early goal meant that Croatia were desperate for the equaliser. It allowed the match to be much more free-flowing than expected.
England had a nice chance in the 15th minute when Trippier floated the ball into the box and Harry Maguire rose high to head at goal but his effort narrowly past the post. 15th minute.
Croatia shrugged off the early goal shock and they looked like they were beginning to match England’s attacking mode. Perisic’s right-footed drive narrowly missed the target despite a deflection off Kyle Walker.
Inter Milan player Perisic got another chance and Juventus forward Mandzukic tested English defence with a header off a cross from the right-back Sime Vrsaljko, who had recovered in time from a knee injury to start the match.
But England again threatened Croatia and could have extended their advantage as Kane, being teed off in the inside left area by Jesse Lingard, moved into the box on the left and forced a save from Subasic. The Tottenham star attacker grabbed the rebound from a tight angle but his shot came off the post in the 29th minute.
Couple of minutes Later, Croatia applied pressure down the right flank as Ante Rebic sent a dangerous delivery into the box which was blocked by Stones but he sent it back to the Croatian right winger. Rebic tested England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford for the first time in the match for Croatia.
With England 1-0 ahead at the half-time, Croatia looked further desperate after the break. They raised the tempo of their game and couple of incursions inside the English box which were discarded.
Both the teams lacked the patience, as Croatia gain ascendancy against an England team which failed to control their game and instead played with the way their opponent wanted. England surrendered the ball at crucial positions and it boosted Croatia’s confidence.
Croatia got their deserved equaliser in the 68th minute when right-back Vrsaljko curled in a cross towards the far post where Walker bent his head to clear it away but Perisic employed a high-kick right-footed flick into the left corner of Pickford’s net.
Croatia enjoyed the momentum and Perisic nearly gave them the lead three minutes later when he grabbed a mispass from John Stones and ran inside the box before employing a left-footed drive which beat Pickford but couldn’t avoid the right post.
Then Mario Mandzukic was to be blamed for not firing a straight shot at Pickford from close range after Brozovic’s dinked through pass set him inside the box in the 83rd minute.
England created couple of set-piece opportunities towards late but Croatian defence dealt with them strongly as the match went to extra-time.
The first chance in the extra-time fell to England when Stones headed a corner from Tripper from the right but Vrsaljko made a goal-line clearance with a header guarding the right post in the 98th minute.
Croatia turned the heat on the English team lacking composure. Four minutes into the second half of extra-time, England failed to clear a high ball down the left and Perisic beat Trippier to a header to the left of the box. The ball fell behind the English defence line and Mandzukic met the dropping ball before flicking a low left-footed shot across Pickford and into the bottom right corner to give Croatia the crucial lead.
Later, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic replaced Mandzukic and Modric to bring in fresh legs to deal with the English response. Enagland failed to come up with a worthy response as Croatia hung on to the slender lead to book their spot for Sunday’s final against France, who got past Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday.