Normally, this is the part where we’d explain how each side got to this stage. If you have no idea what’s going on, I’m going to have to presume you’ve been in a coma for over two decades, so brace yourself – a few things have changed. The year is 2018. Britain is enjoying one of the hottest summers on record, and the word ‘Brexit’ has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The country is obsessed with Love Island (yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like), but most importantly – England are in a World Cup semi-final.
- Tottenham defender Kieran Trippier channelled his inner Roberto Carlos and fired England into the lead after just five short minutes. Sudden onset floods are experienced across the country due to millions of pints being thrown into the air in unison.
- Harry Maguire’s massive forehead continued to be the immovable force in The Three Lions back line.
- (Sir) Jordan Pickford continued to show the FA why there should be a statue of him outside Wembley, with another incredible goalkeeping display.
- Kyle Walker took one for the team – quite literally.
- Ivan Perisic equalised for the Croatians in the 68th minute, converting the 25th cross that England had faced during the match.
- Gareth Southgate’s men continued to push for a winner, but it was Mario Mandžukić who got the final goal, sending the Vatreni into their first ever World Cup Final.
England started the game just how the nation would have wanted them to – on the front foot. Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, and Jesse Lingard have proven to be a forced to be reckoned with this tournament, and it was their passing that cut the Croatians apart. Historically, England have struggled to find each other on the ball, but Southgate’s side had no trouble connecting on and off the pitch, completing 147 passes inside the first half alone.
Five minutes in, it was Alli who startled the Croatian defence and was ultimately brought down in ‘Beckham territory’. Personally, it still bothers me that 11 years after Becks played his final game for England, we still refer to any remotely dangerous set piece as ‘Beckham territory’ – it’s just further evidence that our national side has been fairly static – but Southgate has breathed new life into The Three Lions. Free-kicks and corners are now goal scoring opportunities, and this was demonstrated perfectly by Trippier. He lined up his shot and before you knew it, a glorious chorus of cheers echoed around cul-de-sacs across the country as the ball flew past the hapless Subašić in goal.
England’s resurgence in midfield continued to grow, despite facing up against the likes of La Liga rivals Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. Credit where credit’s due – Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson has had one hell of a tournament. Yesterday, he threw himself into every tackle, chased every ball, and put every single Croatian player under pressure. The armband was awarded to Harry Kane before the tournament started, but Henderson’s ability to man-manage paid dividends, making it impossible for Croatia to move through the centre of the park, forcing the Vatreni to spread the ball out wide. His passion has been infectious, but it’s a passion that we’re not used to seeing from The Three Lions, who have approached each game in this tournament with a level of confidence and composure that you’d expect from a much more experienced side.
Pickford has been the man of the moment, and his distribution has been of the highest level. Time and time again, he collected the ball and released it back into open play, finding Lingard out wide or Walker in defence. The side’s urgency stems from the Everton shot-stopper, and if he’s able to carry this form into the next season, the Merseysiders could have one hell of run in the Premier League.
Ultimately, The Three Lions fell short thanks to goals from two incredible players. Croatia had a great game and they didn’t win through luck – they earned it. But England did the impossible this summer – they made the nation fall in love with football again. Homes have been draped in England flags, the George Cross has been painted on mini roundabouts across the country, and for the first time in a long time, the nation has been united. In a world full of Neymars, Gareth Southgate reminded the world how to be a gentleman, how to be humble in victory, and gracious in defeat.
So really, the takeaway is this; the boys did good. Six weeks ago, all the nation could talk about was Nigeria’s incredible home kit. Now we prepare for a hero’s welcome. The trophy might not be, but football’s already come home.
Goal of the day
Honestly, just watch this goal. It’s beautiful. The bend, the power, the technical ability. Let’s face it, Croatia could have scored a hat-trick of scorpion kicks and I’d still have chosen an England goal as GOTD, but this really was sublime. I’ll never get bored of watching this – or Pickford’s celebration, to be honest.
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) July 11, 2018