Croatia will fight France for the 2018 FIFA World Cup after they beat England 2-1 in extra time in their semi-final meeting at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Wednesday.
Kieran Trippier's fifth-minute free-kick swung the Three Lions into an early lead in the Russian capital, but Ivan Perisic tapped in on the 68-minute mark to equalise and force extra time.
Perisic also played a part in teeing up Mario Mandzukic for Croatia's second in the 109th minute, completing their comeback to mark their first appearance in a World Cup final.
Zlatko Dalic's men will be back at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday to face France, who glanced a 1-0 victory over Belgium on Tuesday thanks to a Samuel Umtiti header.
Croatia's Knack for Winning Ugly Key to Beating Mbappe, France
Doing things the "easy way" was never an option for Croatia, largely because there was no easy route for a nation with a population of roughly 4 million and have never featured in a World Cup final.
But it's fair to say they're taking the harder route, having followed up back-to-back penalty shootout wins over Denmark and Russia by coming from behind to make their way past England.
Boxing commentator Paulie Malignaggi had 44 fights as a professional, but even he hailed the warrior's spirit shown by Croatia—that immaterial thing that France can't necessarily combat:
There were 63 minutes between Trippier's free-kick, which pushed the Three Lions into an early lead, and Perisic's equaliser on a Sime Vrsaljko cross, but the BBC 5 live Sport team said the writing was on the wall:
France will demand even more from Croatia, as they sport an attack that features superstars Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, but Croatia have tamed individual stars in Russia already, and they can do it again on Sunday.
Even Croatia's second goal came out from nothing—a misdirected clearance carried on by a speculative header from Perisic and dutifully snapped up by the predatory Mandzukic, via Fox Soccer (U.S. only):
It was the third knockout match in succession that Dalic's side have conceded first—a tactic that perhaps more teams should think of adapting in their future World Cup endeavours.
In truth, though, even those who dropped out of the tournament at Croatia's expense could hardly begrudge the underdog nation their quest against the odds—at least according to writer James Benge:
Though their extra minutes and shootouts spent in Russia may seem a burden compared to France's path, as they have ended all their games in normal time, the Croats look to have been galvanised by having their backs to the wall.
Even topping Group D ahead of Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria was a battle against the odds, although their pristine group run was a far comfier ride.
France will be the favourites for their final clash against Croatia, but it's not a script Dalic and Co. are unfamiliar with. Pressure makes diamonds, and Croatia's gems have shone brightest when tensions have been at their highest.
Familiar England Frailties Arise in World Cup Crash
This England team will stand apart from previous editions of the squad regardless of their loss, but there were parts of Wednesday's wilting display that echoed of what has gone wrong in the past.
The shift in confidence was clear once Perisic got his equaliser. Passes that were coming off for England were no longer going to feet, while Croatia, more familiar with adapting to their predicament, grew inches after stepping onto level terms.
All of a sudden, the 90 minutes ended with the Three Lions in a whimper, which stood in stark comparison to the proud pack that started the match with such zip. Goal's Kris Voakes highlighted the pressure on Gareth Southgate to intervene:
For many in the England squad, this was a first trip to a World Cup. Croatia may not have as many household names among their 22 players, but their extra experience in such circumstances and a more familiarised group yielded their benefits.
By the time Mandzukic forced the winner in extra time, BBC Sport's Simon Stone noted it was overdue:
Even something as simple as Jordan Pickford's pelting a non-threatening pass back to Mandzukic straight out for his first touch in the second half of extra time was troubling. Such slips can be attributed to a lack of stamina, nerves, both or neither, but they're the kind of mistakes that can't be afforded.
The upside for England and Southgate alike is that there can be no ill will, considering the expectations were the lowest they'd been in decades. NBC's Roger Bennett opted to celebrate rather than mourn their exit:
Journalist Harsha Bhogle looked forward to the next World Cup—Qatar 2022—as a major opportunity for this up-and-coming group:
As was mentioned, this wasn't the same as past England failures, and in fairness, there may not have been a more mentally reinforced team they could have encountered in the last four.
The talent appears to be there, as it has in previous tournament runs, but England's failure to push on from a winning position and take their spot in the final suggests mental weakness is at the root of their exit.
Perisic Powers Croatia in Place of Misfiring Modric
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic have been billed as Croatia's most prevalent powers for most of this World Cup, but in the periods those central stars weren't at their best on Wednesday, Perisic was on hand to lead with his best display of the competition.
The Inter Milan wide man showed terrific awareness to nip in front of Kyle Walker and volley in Croatia's second-half equaliser as reward for a serious sway in Croatia's favour, via Fox Soccer (U.S. only):
ITV provided a snap of the goal for UK viewers:
Modric grew into the match as things progressed and finished with a pass completion of 89 percent, per WhoScored.com—Rakitic finished with 81 per cent. In the end, Modric recovered to put in a classier display, as much of his side did, but Perisic was more key in the pivotal moments.
The movement of England's attack meant they at first were forced deep and prevented from impacting further upfield, but Perisic wasn't burdened by such tactics and did well to hit the post not long after his goal.
After Perisic helped set up Mandzukic's extra-time winner as well, pundit Jan Aage Fjortoft touted him as his man of the match:
FIFA Twitch streamer Kurt concurred as Croatia's central stars didn't take up the fight with the same sustained quality seen earlier in the tournament:
There was even a moment in extra time where Modric, in a most uncharacteristic hiccup, simply tripped the ball to his English marker as weary legs appeared to take their toll on the Real Madrid whiz.
Luckily for him, he's got a host of other stars to paper over the cracks when needed and he's out of his usual rhythm. Dalic can only hope Perisic rises to the fore to the same extent against France on Sunday.