After each matchday of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Sportsnet.ca’s World Cup Daily blog will recap the day’s events, and look ahead to the next day’s slate of games.
Here’s what happened on Wednesday, in case you missed it…
MAIN TALKING POINT
Resilience, thy name is Croatia
Just seven years after becoming an independent nation, Croatia stunned the field at the 1998 World Cup by reaching the semifinals, thanks to a glorious Golden Generation of players that included Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki. Competing in their first World Cup, the Croatians made it all the way to the semifinals, and even took the lead against France in Saint-Denis, only to be undone by a pair of Lilian Thuram goals – the only two goals, it would turn out, that the defender would score in his 142 appearances for Les Bleus.
Twenty years on from that heartbreaking loss, a new Golden Generation of Croatian players – most notably Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic – have done one better by leading the country to its first ever World Cup final. It’s poetic that the last time a team came from behind to win a World Cup semifinal match was that French side that beat Suker and his Croatian cohorts. It took them two decades, but they redeemed themselves. Mandzukic served as the hero as it was his goal that capped off a magical night for Croatia in Moscow, and extended England’s World Cup drought for at least another four years.
There’s a lot to like about this Croatia side. It’s a skilled team, with Modric and Rakitic ranking amongst the best midfielders in the world. Their patience in possession is something to behold – like the Spanish, they don’t try to force the issue, and instead play the long game by slowly pecking away at their opponents, before finding an opening and sticking the dagger in.
But more than anything else, you have to admire Croatia’s resilience. In three consecutive knockout games at this World Cup they have trailed. Three times they have clawed back to win. Back-to-back victories in penalty shootouts over Denmark and hosts Russia was followed by an epic performance on Wednesday against the English, who took the lead in the fifth minute off Kevin Trippier’s marvellous free kick.
England was at the races after that, carrying the play for the opening 45 minutes and going into the break with all the momentum, while Croatia looked spent and haggard. But then, a brilliant equalizer by Perisic in the 68th minute turned the game on its head. Suddenly, it was England who was just hanging on, while there was a new spring in Croatia’s step.
Moments after tying things up, Perisic blew a golden opportunity to put his team ahead, somehow hitting the woodwork from in close. Then in extra time, Perisic delivered a tantalizing ball deep into the English box for Mandzukic, who managed to get a foot on it, but couldn’t direct it past England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
Mandzukic, though, would not be denied. Deep into extra time, Kyle Walker couldn’t clear a pass played into the box and the ball fell to Perisic. The Inter Milan star quickly headed it to Mandzukic, and the Juventus forward buried it past Pickford. It was just reward for Mandzukic, the ultimate workhorse, and for Croatia, who had 22 shots (seven on target), compared to England’s 11, (with only one on target).
Now all that stands in Croatia’s way of achieving World Cup glory is France. It’s a rematch that’s been 20 years in the making, and the way that the Croatians have managed to overcome adversity at this World Cup, you wouldn’t bet against them.
In the fifth minute, Luka Modric tripped Dele Alli just outside the Croatia box. Kieran Trippier stepped up and curved a gorgeous kick over the right side of the Croatian defensive wall and into the top right corner of the goal beyond the reach of a diving Danijel Subasic.
In the 105th minute, Croatia’s Ivan Perisic delivered a cross from the left flank to the edge of England’s six-yard box. Mario Mandzukic managed to get his foot on it, but goalkeeper Jordan Pickford threw out his right leg to deny the Juventus forward of a sure goal.
It has to be Mario Mandzukic’s winner in extra time, a goal that ended up sending Croatia though to its first World Cup final.
“Twenty years ago I was back home in Omis, my home town. I rooted for Croatia, wearing a Croatia jersey, and I could only dream of playing for my country and scoring one of the most important goals to send us to a final.” – Ivan Perisic, on the 1998 World Cup semifinal that Croatia lost to France.
SIX PACK OF STATS
• Only one of the previous 18 teams to be ahead at halftime in a World Cup semifinal match failed to go on and win: Italy in 1990 vs. Argentina, who lost on penalties.
• Ivan Perisic has scored four goals at the World Cup – only Davor Suker (six) has scored more in the competition for Croatia.
• Kieran Trippier is the second England player to score a direct free-kick goal at a World Cup since 1966, following David Beckham who scored one in both 1998 and 2006.
• Wednesday marked the first time that England took the lead in a World Cup semifinal match since 1966.
• There have been 12 goals scored at this World Cup by Tottenham players, more than any other pro club.
• England scored nine goals from set pieces at this World Cup, the most by any team in a single tournament since 1966.
Stats courtesy of Opta
1) Mario Mandzukic, Croatia: Aside from scoring the extra time winner, the Juventus forward ran himself ragged for the Croatian cause, expertly held up play and acted as the first line of defence.
2) Ivan Perisic, Croatia: Scored the equalizing goal with a fantastic individual effort, and pestered England’s defence all night with his probing runs.
3) Kieran Trippier, England: Was subbed out in injury time, but scored the goal that gave England the lead and was very steady in defence.
LOOKING AHEAD TO SATURDAY
Third-place match: Belgium vs. England in Saint Petersburg (10:00 a.m. ET) – There’s little rest for England and Belgium as they both have to turn around and play for a consolation prize. These third-place games tend to be tame and rather uneventful, with both managers usually making wholesale line-up changes and giving playing time to bench players who have seen little or no action.
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
Brian Phillips of The New Yorker writes about how France trolled their way to final:
And so: the ninety-first minute. Kylian Mbappé in the corner. Mbappé is nineteen years old. He’s scored three goals so far in this World Cup, more than any teen-ager since Pelé, in 1958. He’s the breakout star of the tournament. He’d been responsible for the prettiest moment in this match, a brain-tickling backheel flick-turn in the fifty-sixth minute. Now, maddeningly, masterfully, he pulled off the ugly coup de grace of France’s magnificent troll job: he made it impossible for Belgium to get the ball back. He looked at the team that had dominated possession all game, and which needed possession to score, and said, “Patience passe science.” He pointed at things. He talked urgently at the referee. He dribbled a little and let the ball go out for another throw. Mercilessly, he happily accepted a yellow card for dribbling away from the referee after the whistle had blown. It was not, by any means, an unprecedented spell of time-wasting— Mbappé would have been right at home in mid-aughts Serie A —but it was brutally effective.