Three minutes had passed in the first half of extra-time when Croatia left back Ivan Strinic went down, clutching his leg. A minute later he limped off and watched from the bench his team scripting a stunning 2-1 win against England in the semi-final at Luzhniki Stadium here on Wednesday.
Strinc was replaced by Josip Pivaric. As strange as it may sound, it was Croatia’s first substitution. Prior to the semi-final, there had been a lot of talk about fatigue setting in for a team that had been involved in two exhausting knockout games over the last week, both going into penalty shootouts.
This was the third straight game to go into extra-time. Yet, by then Croatia were controlling proceedings and England, supposedly fresher, failed to get a sniff at goal.
“What the players did today —- the strength they have shown, the stamina, the energy — was incredible. I wanted to make substitutions but no one wanted to be subbed. I have to tip my hat to our doctors and medical staff. Some players played with minor injuries today. Two played with half-a-leg. Nobody wanted to say ‘I am not ready’. In extra-time, no one wanted to come off,” coach Zlatko Dalic said after the game.
Yet, when the game began with a sizeable English presence in the stands, Croatia did look subdued. England’s dream start, with Kieran Trippier scoring from a free-kick in the fifth minute, saw them carry the momentum for the rest of the half. Both Harry Maguire and Harry Kane found themselves at the end of scoring opportunities but a second goal didn’t come.
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Then in the second half, Ivan Perisic sprang into life. With Croatia starting to grow in the game, the Inter Milan midfielder found the equaliser in the 68th minute when he lifted his leg over marker Kyle Walker to poke in a Sime Vrsaljko cross.
Four minutes later, Perisic almost gave his side the lead but his shot hit the post.
It was in the fourth minute of the second half of extra-time that Mario Mandzukic found the winner. The assist? Perisic with a clever header that helped set up the shooting opportunity for Mandzukic who was more switched-on than the defenders flanking him.
“We started slowly, but we showed our character just as in the previous two knockout games when we were a goal down. Earlier, we never used to be that resilient,” Perisic said.
It is this new-found resilience that has helped produced one of the stories of this World Cup. Croatia have often flattered to deceive at the biggest of stages in the past. In 2008, an impressive group stage was followed by a quarter-final exit at the hands of Turkey in the European Championships.
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In the same tournament eight years later, they were knocked out by Portugal after topping a tough group.
This time, there seems to be renewed belief among the players.
“When we started our preparation six weeks ago, I insisted that I cannot teach these players football. They play fantastic football already. I am in charge of some other things. This is what they have accepted. Initially, on their part there may not have been full trust and confidence but as the tournament progressed, they have gained confidence,” said Dalic.
Confidence they would need by the bagful when Croatia take on the mighty France at this same venue in Sunday’s final. But like Dalic said, they haven’t been short of that.
Twenty years ago, Croatia’s World Cup dreams had come crashing down against France in the semi-finals. “Maybe the dear lord is giving us the chance to settle a score,” said Dalic.
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