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Resolute Croatia sends young England packing
CROATIA'S Mario Mandzukic ran and ran and ran until he had almost nothing left in his tank. And then there was one more chance, early in the second period of extra time in Moscow.
A ball nodded back in, a tiny gap behind the England defence, and the 32-year-old summoned whatever he had left and went for it. The ball fell, the striker beat his man to it and slammed it under goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
Just like that, Croatia was headed to its first World Cup final, staggering off the pitch as 2-1 victors against a young England team that rode destiny as far as it would take it but fell one step short of its goal.
It will be Croatia that plays France on Sunday in the grand final in the Russian capital. England, on the other hand, will head to Saint Petersburg to play Belgium on Saturday in the third-place match - a fixture that neither really wants.
Mandzukic's winning goal on Thursday morning (Singapore time) came after 109 gruelling minutes. It was set up by a quick-thinking Ivan Perisic, who saw opportunity in a half-clearance and won it for Mandzukic.
Perisic had scored Croatia's first, another opportunistic goal in the 68th minute that caught out England's defence - younger, faster but less experienced in big moments - and negated a fifth-minute free kick by Kieran Trippier.
It was all going well for England back then. The World Cup. The semifinal. Everything.
Trippier's goal, a wonderful free kick from just over 18 metres straight out front, had been the perfect start for his team.
It soothed any early nerves and set a tone that this was all possible, that England would just reach its first World Cup final since winning the tournament on home soil in 1966.
England had built momentum since the group stage, defeating first Colombia and then Sweden amid once-ironic chants of Football's Coming Home - a 1990s parody of the country's long trophy drought turned motivational slogan.
But the team's inexperience in critical moments and major matches showed at two crucial points: when Perisic slipped around Kyle Walker and Trippier, and caught them napping on the first goal; and when Mandzukic reacted first to Perisic's header on the second.
Each time, a momentary lapse - reminiscent of the last-minute equaliser England allowed against Colombia in the Round of 16 - proved monumentally costly again.
It is a lesson England, the second-youngest team in the tournament, will take into its suddenly brighter future.
There were other highlights, too: England's dominance on set pieces in the tournament proved a roadmap for how to exploit Harry Kane, who most likely will win the Golden Boot as the World Cup's top scorer.
England discovered a goalkeeper for the future in Pickford, 24, who was magnificent, keeping his team even several times when Croatia's veteran line-up - three of its starters have won the Champions League with their respective clubs - pushed the English onto the back foot as the minutes ticked later and later.
So, England is the only thing coming home, but not until it plays one more game - for third place against Belgium.
For an hour or more, it didn't seem Croatia would have enough. England had younger legs and faster legs and, thanks to Trippier, a priceless lead.
But Croatia had Perisic and Mandzukic, and a will to get something, anything, to extend its own run here.
It went the extra mile for sure. Croatia's win was its third straight game in extra time, and by the end it was beginning to look as if the team would not have anything left if the match went to a penalty shoot-out. But Perisic's goal summoned whatever the starters had in reserve.
Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic didn't make a single substitution in the first 90 minutes, trusting his team to find a way. And Mandzukic, with an assist from Perisic, finally did.
Run into the ground, Mandzukic at last departed after the goal - replaced by a defender to lock down the final 10 minutes or so.
And when it was over, the last bits of energy went into the celebrations. Domagoj Vida sprinted and did a long knee slide in front of the fans in Croatia's end, and several teammates followed by diving headfirst into the grass next to him.
Far upfield, Perisic lay on his back where he fell at the final whistle. He had gone the whole way, there was nothing left. Except, of course, the grand final on Sunday. NYTIMES