It took all but 5 minutes for England to open the scoring in the 2018 FIFA World Cup semifinal, but a 100-odd minutes later, they were left staring down the barrel as their opponents, Croatia, made it to the showpiece event in Moscow courtesy a 2-1 win after extra time. A match that the English were fancied to win took an extremely shocking turn as the Croats turned the game upside down after being a goal down very early. The win has several implications for world football and it is unsurprising to see a black horse in the final, in a World Cup where the underdogs have repeatedly sprung up surprises.
We can all agree to the fact that Croatia did not go into the game as favorites. The vast majority of football fans were readying themselves for a France-England final, only for it all to fall apart from a promising position initially. Kieran Trippier’s stunning free-kick had but the English ahead after 5 minutes and that should have set the flow for this talented side against a Croatia defense that, for most of the first half, was in recovery mode. However, quite a few poor misses from encouraging positions gave the Croats enough time to get into the game in the second half. The free-kick would end up being England’s ONLY shot on target in 120 minutes and that is far from what you require in a World Cup semi-final. The game was an evident example of the fact that resilience, motivation, and momentum can impact a game at any point of time. England failed to keep the latter up when they had the chance, while Croatia used it to kill the game off after falling behind initially.
Nobody can question Gareth Southgate’s tactical acumen and his managerial skills that took England this far, but when he looks back, he and his team will surely regret the fact that they could not grab a second goal and build on their momentum in the game. That one goal could have changed the entire anti-climax of the game and the failure to score it could be the prompt for critics to claim that England had it easy till the semi-finals in Russia. Starting from the group-stage, England looked brilliant against Panama but seemed to struggle in the last-minute win against Tunisia as well as the 1-0 reverse against Belgium. In the Round of 16 games against Colombia, the English again struggled to score more than one goal and their meant repeated giveaways allowed the South Americans, to score with one of the last kicks of the game, from a corner. Had they retained the calm and composed attitude they seemed to possess in plenty in the penalty shoot-out in the initial 90 minutes, they could have gotten a goal or to more. The English were clear favorites in the game against Sweden and put up a solid 2-0 victory, which was their best performance in the entire World Cup, even eclipsing the 6-1 thrashing of Panama, simply because their passing, defending and attacking were all brilliant from start to finish. All of these went for a toss in the second half against Croatia and the Three Lions have been left licking the painful wounds Croatia inflicted on them. There were several talks of the World Cup ‘coming home’, but England has only managed to get to the doorstep before falling apart. They will be rearing to go against Belgium to secure a third-place finish on Saturday evening.
The game looks much too far alike to the 2018 Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool, the other similarity being Dejan Lovren’s appearance for the underdogs (Croatia and Liverpool) in both games and he would definitely not enjoy the prospect of losing two massive finals in the same season. Whether Croatia beat or lose to France is secondary. Their amazing run in Russia is a testament to the fact that the smaller teams have much to be confident about and that collective effort, resilience, stamina, and sparks of inspiration can definitely lead a team to roads that were unraveled in the past. Croatia have shown to football fans worldwide that the game of football is still as unpredictable as it gets, but isn’t that what makes this the ‘beautiful game’?