Three quick thoughts from Croatia’s 2-1 extra-time win over England in the World Cup semifinals at Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday.
1. Tireless Croatia thrive in extra time
Croatia will face France in their first World Cup final on Sunday after overturning a 1-0 deficit to beat England 2-1 after extra time in the semifinal in Moscow. Goals by Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic, following Kieran Trippier’s fifth-minute opener, booked Croatia’s place in the final for a repeat of the 1998 semifinal against the French.
But while Croatia’s superior quality and command of the ball told in the Luzhniki Stadium, their remarkable levels of energy were also key, with this game the third time they have been forced to negotiate extra time in Russia.
Against Denmark and Russia in the earlier rounds, Croatia were also forced to go through the ordeal of penalties before advancing, but the fact remains that they will face France having played 90 minutes more than Didier Deschamps’ team due to their accumulated extra-time workload.
This is a tough team to beat, however, and France will have to overcome Croatia’s technical ability as well as their remarkable resolve.
At times in the first half, they were struggling for air against England, but Croatia still held on, and fought back to win. Luka Modric, who looked exhausted for much of the game, still ending as the conductor for Croatia.
France will be favourites on Sunday, but don’t write Croatia off.
2. England waste a golden opportunity
England were 22 minutes from the World Cup final, until their faltering game plan was finally punished by Perisic and Croatia, but they only have themselves to blame for being in the position to lose this game.
Gareth Southgate’s team dominated the first half, and they had Croatia on the ropes for lengthy periods after Trippier’s fifth-minute free kick had given England the lead.
They then kept Croatia pressed back, stretched the game and made Zlatko Dalic’s team look heavy-legged after two penalty shootout sagas to get to this stage. Harry Kane struck the post, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard spurned good chances, and Croatia somehow held on to go in just one behind at the interval.
The break refreshed the Croatians and they started the second half with greater energy and purpose and, at that stage, Southgate missed the chance to make the change that would enable England to regain control of midfield.
Jordan Henderson was being asked to do the job of two men and it was punishing work, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic dictating play. When Southgate finally made the change late in the second half, it was to replace Henderson with Eric Dier rather than support him.
England have had a World Cup beyond their expectations, but they really could and should have gone even further. They should have won this game.
3. Perisic teaches Alli a lesson
Dele Alli made a decisive contribution in this game, but after being fouled in the second minute for Trippier’s free-kick opener for England, the Tottenham midfielder struggled to make any further impact.
If Alli’s performance in Moscow is placed alongside that of Perisic, it is clear to see the difference between a player searching for form at this World Cup and one on top of his game.
Perisic, who switched between left and right flanks on several occasions during the game, was a constant threat with his pace, direct running and finishing. The Inter Milan man, who was a leading target for Jose Mourinho at Manchester United 12 months ago, netted the equaliser for Croatia midway through the second half after beating Kyle Walker to a Sime Vrsaljko cross.
And he almost gave his country the lead four minutes later when he sent a left-foot strike against the far post after finding space once again. His extra-time cross for Mandzukic also created havoc for England, with the delivery almost creating a goal.
There is seven years’ difference between Alli and Perisic, who is the older player at 29, and the experience gap showed in this semifinal. Alli went further into his shell as the game progressed, but Perisic became a greater danger as the game wore on and tired legs became an issue.
The thigh injury sustained by Alli against Tunisia in England’s opening game has lingered on and affected his fitness, but even before this tournament, he had flattered to deceive on the international stage. Perisic, in contrast, has shown that he belongs on it.