England’s World Cup dreams came to a crushing end after Croatia rallied to prevent Gareth Southgate’s men reaching the country’s first final in 52 years.
Football will not be coming home at the end of an extraordinary summer after the Three Lions’ hopes of replicating the heroes of 1966 were extinguished in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium semi-final.
Kieran Trippier’s exceptional early free-kick had England dreaming of facing France on Sunday, but Croatia will line-up in their first World Cup final after Ivan Perisic levelled and Mario Mandzukic struck to secure a 2-1 extra-time win. While few predicted Southgate’s side getting anywhere near Sir Alf Ramsey’s champions at the start of the summer, this bold, young side had looked capable of doing the unthinkable in Russia.
England’s hopes grew as their third World Cup semi-final started with a fifth-minute stunner as Trippier curled home a free-kick that his idol David Beckham would have been proud of.
But the Three Lions were unable to press home their advantage and Perisic snuck ahead of Kyle Walker to draw Croatia level midway through the second half, taking the match to extra-time. Mandzukic struck the killer blow after John Stones’ effort was cleared off the line, with England players collapsing on the floor as the final whistle ended their hopes of glory.
Southgate, unsurprisingly, kept his composure despite suffering more semi-final heartache, having missed the crucial penalty in the Euro 96 shootout defeat to Germany.
But he said his players “came of age” during the World Cup,.
“There’ll be a new benchmark and level of expectation,” said Southgate.
“To become a winning team there are hurdles you have to overcame – and we’ve surpassed many of them.
“Many of our players have come of age on the international stage.”
England had the second youngest squad at the World Cup and exceeded expectations to reach the last four for only the third time in their history – after 1966 and 1990.
“Tonight was a wonderful opportunity and you can’t guarantee they’ll come again,” said Southgate.
“But equally we want to be a team who hit quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals. A lot of teams who go on to win trophies lose in quarter-finals or semi-finals first.
“We’ve proved to ourselves and our country that’s possible.
“At the moment we all feel the pain of defeat. I don’t think realistically we expected to be here.
“I’m remarkably proud of the group of players – the reaction of the supporters compared to two years ago shows the country are proud of the way we played.”
It was a galling evening for his team but the future looks bright, even if it is hard after a gut punch that leaves them facing Belgium in Saturday’s third-placed play-off.
England fans did their best to raise their players after putting country over cost and complications to be in Moscow.
They have been given no little excitement this summer and were able to celebrate a superb fifth-minute opener.
Trippier continued his brilliant World Cup by opening his international goal account in style, bending a free-kick that beat the wall and static Danijel Subasic.
“Football’s coming home” echoed around the cavernous Luzhniki as England celebrated, with Harry Maguire looking to quickly add to the fifth-minute opener.
Croatia looked uncomfortable as Raheem Sterling’s directness caused as much of a headache as England’s dead-balls, with the rapid forward threatening to get behind their rattled backline.
Soon it was Croatia’s woodwork rattling. Having collected a through ball from Jesse Lingard and reacted well to his initial attempt being unconvincingly stopped, Harry Kane’s strike from an acute angle was directed on to the post by Subasic.
The offside flag would have seen it chalked off had it gone in against a Croatia side belatedly showing signs of life, with John Stones impressing at the heart of defence and Jordan Pickford denying Ante Rebic .
Lingard missed a good chance before the first half came to a controversial close, with furious Croatia remonstrating with officials after Maguire appeared to hold Dejan Lovren in the box.
The second period got off to a testy start but Croatia were now looking the brighter side.
Shortly after Walker took a Perisic shot to the groin, the 29-year-old delivered a devastating blow by edging ahead of the defender to direct home a superb Sime Vrsaljko cross.
The leveller threw England off kilter and Perisic was tormentor-in-chief, looking set to punish increasing defensive confusion after showing great skill before firing a low strike that hit the foot of the post.
Pickford denied Mandzukic and Perisic clipped over the bar with the goalkeeper off his line as the match entered the closing stages.
Kane headed wide in stoppage-time as England attempted to snatch victory before extra-time, when Stones met a corner with a header bound for the net until Vrsaljko’s goal-line intervention.
Pickford was the player that came to England’s rescue in stoppage-time, clattering Mandzukic as he denied the striker turning in Perisic’s cross from the left.
Marcelo Brozovic almost caught the Three Lions napping from a free-kick shortly into the second period that was four minutes old when Pickford’s goal was breached again.
Mandzukic caught the England defence napping, sneaking in between Stones and Maguire to fire home from Perisic’s hopeful header.
England were reduced to 10 men after injured Trippier was forced off in tears and substitute Andrej Kramaric wasted a glorious chance to add gloss.
Not that it mattered. Croatia did enough to crush England dreams.