|Fan of Croatia celebrate their team’s victory after the 2018 FIFA World Cup semi-final match between England and Croatia in Moscow, Russia on July 11. Croatia won 2-1 and advanced to the final. — Xinhua Photo
MOSCOW — Mario Mandzukic struck a dramatic extra-time goal as Croatia clinched a place in their first World Cup final with a 2-1 victory over England here on Wednesday.
The Juventus forward prompted jubilant scenes in the Croatia camp by ghosting in behind England’s defence and lashing a first-time shot past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
England had taken an early lead courtesy of a Kieran Trippier free-kick before Ivan Perisic showed great athleticism to fire in a second-half equaliser.
|Dele Alli (1st right) of England clashes with Ivan Rakitic (2nd R) of Croatia during the 2018 FIFA World Cup semi-final match between England and Croatia in Moscow, Russia on July 11. Croatia won 2-1 and advanced to the final. — Xinhua Photo
Croatia will now meet France in the final on Sunday and they are already guaranteed their best ever World Cup finish, bettering their third placing in 1998.
As expected, England manager Gareth Southgate chose an unchanged lineup from the one which beat Colombia on penalties and defeated Sweden.
Croatia brought in Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozovic to sit in front of the back four, with Hoffenheim attacker Andrej Kramaric relegated to the bench.
The move allowed Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to push further forward, with Perisic and Ante Rebic providing width on the wings.
|Mario Mandzukic (centre) of Croatia shoots to score during the 2018 FIFA World Cup semi-final match between England and Croatia in Moscow, Russia on July 11. Croatia won 2-1 and advanced to the final. — Xinhua Photo
It took just five minutes for England to send their boisterous fans into wild celebrations at Luzhniki Stadium.
Dele Alli was tripped by Modric on the edge of the box after clever build-up play by Jesse Lingard and Trippier curled the resultant free-kick into the top left corner of Danijel Subasic’s goal.
England were posing an ever-present threat at set pieces and Harry Maguire frittered away a chance to double his side’s lead by aiming a free header wide after a Trippier corner.
Croatia slowly began to work their way into the match with Modric pulling the strings in midfield and Ante Rebic providing a threat along the right flank.
They created half a chance when Ivan Perisic’s shot flew wide after taking a deflection off Kyle Walker.
Rebic then had a long-range attempt comfortable saved by Pickford. But it was England who presented the greatest scoring threat.
Southgate’s side will have been kicking themselves for failing to capitalize on an errant Ivan Strinic pass that fell to Ryan Sterling 30 yards from goal.
The Manchester City forward waited slightly too long to lay off his pass to Kane, who was flagged for offside when a one-on-one with Subasic beckoned.
Kane then somehow failed to score after a clever pass by Lingard left him through on goal. The Tottenham striker’s angled shot was kept out by Subasic and Kane subsequently fired the rebound against the post.
England picked up where they left off after halftime and Lingard’s 25-yard drive was diverted over the bar by Domagoj Vida after neat interplay between Kane and Alli.
Lovren then kicked away a dangerous Trippier cross just before Kane could make contact with a header on the edge of the six-yard box.
The equaliser came in the 68th minute. Perisic met Sime Vrsaljko’s inviting cross from the right by sticking out his left foot and firing into the bottom corner while almost taking off Walker’s head in the process.
|Players of Croatia celebrate victory after the 2018 FIFA World Cup semi-final match between England and Croatia in Moscow, Russia on July 11. Croatia won 2-1 and advanced to the final. — Xinhua Photo
Croatia were suddenly energised. They had another gilt-edged chance three minutes later and again it was Perisic who provided the danger.
The Inter Milan winger was afforded space after a failed John Stones clearance but only managed to fire his shot against the post. Marcelo Brozovic then blasted over as England’s defense looked all at sea.
Southgate replaced Sterling with Marcus Rashford in the 74th minute in a bid to provide an attacking spark. But Croatia continued to press and England hearts were again sent fluttering when Mandzukic chested down a Brozovic pass from the right only to fire his shot from a tight angle straight at Pickford.
England will have been relieved to hear referee Cuneyt Cakir blow the full-time whistle and the short break seemed to work in their favour as they took the initiative early in extra time.
However the Three Lions were left frustrated as Vrsaljko brilliantly cleared off the line after after Stones met a Trippier corner with a bullet header.
The winner came in the 19th minute of extra-time as England were caught napping. Mandzukic reacted first to Perisic’s clever looping header before blasting beyond Pickford. — XINHUA