Out but not Down as England Fall at the Hands of Croatia
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Out but not Down as England Fall at the Hands of Croatia

A swing of Mario Mandzukic’s left foot confirmed it was not coming home, as England were beaten 2-1 in extra time by Croatia in their World Cup semi-final.

The dream was alive for a time for England fans, following Kieran Trippier’s wonderful free-kick just five minutes into the game in Moscow. Further chances were crafted and squandered, in particular from skipper Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard.

But the pattern of the game shifted from half time onwards. England stopped pressing, in part by their own actions and also due to Croatia stepping up their game.

Ivan Perisic nipped in front of his marker on 68 minutes to level the match and the only surprise was that Croatia did not go on and win the game in normal time.

But they did win the game in extra-time. Tired bodies and tired minds resulted in England centre backs John Stones and Harry Maguire switching off. Mandzukic did not, and he reacted first to a ball lifted into the box and fired an unerring shot beyond Jordan Pickford.

Defeat will be hard to take for England and will likely sting for a while, as the draw opened up superbly to hand them a fantastic shot at a major title. That they did not take it is disappointing, but there are clear positives to take for the future.

It’s true that they fell short the first time they faced a quality opponent, but manager Garth Southgate has built some firm foundations.

England’s defence is strong and they are keen to get the ball down and play, while there are excellent attacking options that will strike fear into defences.

The one thing that is lacking, and was evident from half-time onwards against Croatia, was the lack of a ball player in the middle of the park.

When England came under pressure, they reverted to their old bad habits of kicking the ball long in a bid to relive pressure. But as has been proved time and again, that only serves to build pressure as you allow a classy opponent to regain possession.

Raheem Sterling has his detractors, but in the first half he frightened the life out of Croatia’s defence. His smart running into space, both off and on the ball, was a joy to behold. That stopped happening in the second half, Sterling was substituted for Marcus Rashford, and England lost their attacking spark.

A controlling presence, someone akin to Croatia’s star man Luka Modric, is what England desperately need. It’s not pie-in-the-sky thinking to suggest that with a Modric in the side, England could be World Cup winners. A player in that mould would knit everything together.

That’s for Southgate to seek out in the future, but the current time is about celebrating an England team who made the nation dream and fall in love with international football again.

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