England Are Out Of The World Cup After Loss To Croatia
England are out of the World Cup after being beaten by Croatia. Mario Mandžukić scored an extra time goal to break the Three Lions' hearts and see Croatia make a first final on the world stage.
Croatia will advance to face France in the final on Sunday, whereas England must pick themselves up for the dreaded third place play-off against Belgium on Saturday.
The Three Lions gave their all, but eventually came up short when it mattered. Their opponents were slow to start, but eventually looked the better side and deserve their place in Sunday night's showpiece back in Moscow.
Ahead of the game, the atmosphere in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium was electric, with several thousand more England fans present than made it to Samara for their quarter-final against Sweden.
Back home, millions of fans stood ready to hurl their pints into the air in support of the boys. They weren't holding onto their pints for long.
England took the lead within minutes after Jesse Lingard was tripped on the edge of the box. From the resulting set piece (it's England, of course it was) Kieran Trippier curled a beautiful free-kick past the despairing dive of Danijel Subašić in the Croatian goal.
That suited England perfectly. They could now sit back and try to catch their opponents on the break. Every time a set piece was won, the England team piled forward. Harry Maguire fizzed a header past the post to remind Croatia that England were still going to offer an attack.
Croatia were very much still in the game though. Ivan Perišić sent the ball past Jordan Pickford's post as a warning.
Then England had two chances. First, some poor goalkeeping from Subašić allowed Raheem Sterling to poach the ball. Harry Kane was offside, but missed anyway.
Then, Lingard found England's main man, Kane, with a pass.
The big Tottenham striker's name should have been on the scoresheet, but he could only hit the goalkeeper. The ball broke back to him, but from a tight angle he squeezed it against the post, the 'keeper, and away from the goal.
Lingard was everywhere at this point. He should have scored, though, after Dele Alli found him in space on the edge of the box, but he slid his shot wide.
For England fans, this was uncharted territory. Croatia didn't produce anything in the first half to overly trouble Pickford in the England goal, whereas England looked dangerous throughout.
A late (and slightly hopeful) VAR check-in didn't reveal anything untoward, and that was that.
Gareth Southgate's team talk at half-time wrote itself - "more of the same LADs".
The second half began at less of a speed to the first, but sprung to life when Trippier again proved the quality of his delivery to slap a first-time volleyed cross into the box.
Only an excellent piece of last-gasp defending from Liverpool's Dejan Lovren stopped Kane making it two from close range.
Croatia's much heralded midfield duo of Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić was yet to get going. Rakitić slapped a shot high and wide around the hour mark, but that was as good as it had got.
After a rare piece of Croatian pressure, England managed to get a breather. Well, everyone except Kyle Walker, who took one in the crown jewels to stop a dangerous shot from Perišić. Ouch.
However, England's resolve didn't last. Perišić found some space in the box to latch onto a promising cross and lash a fantastic volleyed finish past Jordan Pickford, who could do nothing about it.
The game was back on, and now Croatia knew it.
England were reeling from the shock of conceding and Perišić - who had been by far the best Croatian player - should have had his second of the night.
Some poor defending gifted the ball to Perišić, who beat Pickford, but not the post. Ante Rebić could only find Pickford's grateful arms.
England responded by bringing on Marcus Rashford for Raheem Sterling, who had been a workhorse, but failed to produce anything meaningful.
But Croatia were still on top, and England looked like the England of old.
Some - shall we say - intense one-touch passing got them out of a defensive mess once again, but the chances were starting to come thick and fast. Mario Mandžukić stung the hands of Jordan Pickford with a wide strike.
Despite Croatia's pressing and probing, the game looked like it was heading to extra time. Three minutes added seemed like a blessing to England at the time.
A late set-piece gave England hope, but Kane couldn't connect properly. And that meant another half-hour to be played.
Some have said that penalties are a lottery, but in many respects, extra-time is similar to blackjack. A battle between stick and twist, go for it, or try your luck.
With that in mind, perhaps, Eric Dier replaced Jordan Henderson, and Danny Rose replaced Ashley Young.
Immediately after that England showed what they are good at the now-iconic line formed in the middle, the corner came in, John Stones leapt brilliantly, but Šime Vrsaljko hadn't read the script and cleared it off the line.
Right at the end of extra time, Pickford bravely came out of his goal to deny Mandžukić after a wonderful cross from the flank had taken every England defender out of the game. Pickford's bravery earned him a sore contact with the striker, but kept his side in the game.
The second half of extra time began as a tale of tired legs. Both sides had contributed to a fast-paced, exciting game, but penalties started to seem more and more likely.
Or at least they did, until Mario Mandžukić slapped the ball past Jordan Pickford after being put through by a back header. For the first time, the Croatians had the lead and England had to come forward.
Southgate's decision to replace Kyle Walker with Jamie Vardy reflected that need. In response, goalscorer Mandžukić left the field for ex-Man City defender Vedran Ćorluka.
England huffed and puffed, but ultimately looked as if the game was getting away from them.
That was about all that England had within them. A late set piece offered them the opportunity for a saviour to show up. They didn't.
For England, a familiar defeat, but one that is made worse by the hope. For Croatia, the chance to make history and a fantastic achievement for a nation of their small size.
For one minute, though, England believed.
Featured Image Credit: PA