Football will not come home after England played just one half of it at the Luzhniki Stadium on a night when Moscow’s great bowl pulsated to the beat of a semi-final that had been there for Gareth Southgate’s side, only for them to hand it back to Croatia.
It wasn’t that simple of course. Luka Modric and his band of remarkable, relentless veterans had to rise in the face of what seemed to be English destiny fulfilling itself and instead claim their own. They did just that and dominated England for the 75 minutes of the match that mattered, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic pouncing to downgrade Kieran Trippier’s first-half free-kick to a footnote.
The Croatian dream has survived three straight nights that went deep and dark before deliverance but now they will return here and face France on Sunday knowing immortality is there for them.
Southgate’s men proved much too mortal when it counted but they’ll surely be back on this kind of stage again soon. Neither manager nor team were canny enough here but it’s unlikely to be three decades before they play for final places again.
Weighty numbers swirled over the Luzhniki Stadium as England emerged to warm-up — 1966; 52 years of hurt; 1990; the 28 years of close things, controversies but mostly calamity that have filled the time and space between Rome and the Russian capital.
As the clock ticked down minutes and seconds on a suffocatingly tense night, another number was worth noting though — 24. As Harry Kane led the England players out to that warm-up, it paid to remember that this is a most precocious captain.
Against West Germany in 1990, England were led by Terry Butcher but they were littered with leaders — Stuart Pearce, Des Walker, Peter Shilton, Gary Lineker, David Platt. Southgate’s side are lots of things but they are not similarly blessed in the leadership stakes.
Kane has mostly led through actions rather than words here in Russia. Inspired by those deeds, English re-enforcements arrived in major numbers here. The fans of the early part of the tournament were so terribly middle class that even the few who were here barely registered on the stadium microphones. There was a more traditional breed here though — the footsoldiers who’ve witnessed plenty of the failures that went before. Anthems, both national and terrace, were belted out more lustily than before, Cockney, Scouse, Geordie and Mackem gravel replacing the Home Counties accents that had preceded them.
Those vocal chords were stretched anew mere minutes in. Southgate’s side had ridden the set-piece wave early and often in Russia but few were as effortlessly elegant as Trippier’s fifth-minute free-kick.
Of all people, Modric made the wrong decision and tried to retrieve the ball from an impossible position behind Alli, only able to bundle him over. England took their time setting up the wall but Trippier never wavered, standing just less than a couple of steps away from the ball as his teammates organised themselves. After two soft paces forward, he unleashed an irresistible shot that curled with authority to the left of Danijel Subasic, the ball rippling the net before the keeper got anywhere close to it. With the first goal of his international career, Kieran Trippier, Spurs’ right back, had joined Bobby Charlton and Lineker as the only Englishmen to score in a World Cup semi-final.
What was surprising was how unsurprising this all was.
England were ahead and had one foot in the final and it felt…right. That’s the air that Kane and co. carried with them here. They carried it for much of the rest of the half too.
But as would prove costly, they never made it count. Kane wasted a glorious opening on the half hour when he shot straight at Subasic and then a post.
With Croatia still listing, Jesse Lingard spurned another.
Zlatko Dalic’s side were always going to have their spell. Even as they stuttered through so much of the first half, there is much too much quality in their ranks for it to persist. They roared out of the gates after the break first with force as they made things much less comfortable for Southgate’s men. But the finesse was not far behind. Modric and Rakitic were finding more gaps and Ante Rebic and Perisic were relentless on the flanks.
Southgate’s side all of a sudden looked like they had the heavier legs. Traffic was one-way. When he should have twisted — around the hour mark as the Croatian fans bellowed, sensing the comeback — the manager stuck.
It was a mistake. On 68 minutes, Sime Vrsaljko whipped in a deep ball that ought not to have overly troubled England. But the complacency had already set in. Neither Trippier nor Kyle Walker spotted Perisic as he ghosted in to flicked it home. The Croatian end erupted and through the noise Kane bellowed for composure.
There was none, that lack of leadership so lacking now. Stones gifted Perisic another opening just minutes later and he cracked a post.
Southgate made his change too later with Marcus Rashford coming in for Raheem Sterling but England wobbled on. Having been so frugal they were now serving up a buffet of offerings.
And yet the half best chance may have been the last, Kane presented with a free header in injury time but nodding it wide. Croatia would be asked to go beyond 90 minutes for the third game in a row but it was Southgate who made the next change. Then they came thick and fast as the exertions began to tell.
This all suited France better than either side here. Extra time was disjointed but then picked up again. It was suddenly absorbing stuff and there were chances to find the crucial go-ahead goal. Stones saw a header cleared off the line while Pickford sprung from his line to deny Mandzukic right before the break.
The striker would have his vengeance soon after the switch of sides when England switched off entirely.
It was unforgivably lax and lazy from first Trippier and then Stones to allow the ball to fall to the striker. He finished with aplomb and even photographers got dragged into the Croatia pile-on in the corner.
England’s race had been run and they looked a side that knew it. The extra specialists of Croatia aren’t ready to clock out yet.