It’s not coming home
Young English side loses to Croatia in World Cup semifinal matchup
SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia — What ifs were on coach Gareth Southgate’s mind long before Wednesday night’s 2-1 extra time loss to Croatia.
What if things don’t “fall as kindly” at future World Cups, he pondered aloud last week.
They were the thoughts of a manager aware of England’s shortcomings; The thoughts of someone who understood The Three Lions had benefited from good fortune during their stay in Russia.
South gate wasn’ t wrong, of course. And credit to him for saying it.
He bluntly stated this week England shouldn’t be considered a top team until they win something.
But you’d never hear France’s Didier Deschamps or Brazil’s Tite or Germany’s Joachim Low speak in those terms.
Perhaps we overlooked South gate’ s premonition of impending doom. Perhaps most of us thought it really might be “coming home.” Perhaps many of us wanted it to.
Talk ahead of Wednesday night’s semifinal in Moscow cent red around the fact England hadn’t truly been tested at this World Cup.
An early tune-up against Tunisia was followed by a pumping of Panama.
England’s final group stage match against Belgium became farcical when both managers rested their entire lineups.
The Three Lions eventually saw off a James-less Colombia before dispatching a listless Sweden side that didn’t test England’s defence.
Even Wednesday night’s meeting with Croatia was deemed the “easy” semifinal given World Cup finalist France were on the side of the bracket with Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and Uruguay.
England didn’t meet a single World Cup champion in Russia — something Southgate pointed to as unique and opportunistic.
“Maybe … we won’t get this opportunity again,” he suggested to ITV News.
An absurdly early free kick goal from Kieran Trippier inside Luzhniki Stadium only perpetuated Southgate’s claims of good fortune.
England was, at one point Wednesday night, a little more than a half-hour from booking its place in a World Cup final for the first time in five decades.
A cheeky British tabloid even inset England’s current squad alongside members from the 1966 team that won this tournament.
But clever headlines and doctored photos were erased by the realization England are what Southgate thought they were and repeatedly said they were: Inexperienced.
The Three Lions didn’t just lose the possession battle in the second half of Wednesday night’s game. They didn’t have the nerve or wherewithal to hold onto the ball and methodically breakdown Croatia’s press.
Constant turnovers off hopeful balls launched forward resulted in wave after wave of Croatian attacks that inevitably saw Ivan Perisic get on the end of a cross.
Mario Mandzukic’s extra time winner resulted from a simple flick in behind England’s tired defence. It was the type of goal teams tend to concede when they can’t get ahold of the game.
In the end, England was exposed for lacking what Croatia had on offer: Two of the best box-to-box midfielders in the tournament in Luca Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
The Three Lions also lacked a true impact player off the bench — someone more dynamic and experienced and dangerous than Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy.
They needed more players with the ability to slow things down, hold onto the ball and take the sting out of game that was beginning to turn in Croatia’s favour before long before Perisic levelled the proceedings.
Leave it to a Russian TV commentator to say what we were all thinking at full-time.
“Is not coming home,” he said in broken English. “England coming home.”
That is, after Southgate rolls out his bench players again in a meaningless third-place match on Saturday against Belgium here in Saint Petersburg.
Croatia’s prize, of course, is a Sunday meeting with France at a stadium in which both sides have already been featured during this tournament.
It’s a group of Croatian players who, prior to knocking off Russia, had talked about wanting to match what their heroes accomplished 20 years ago.
Now they’ve done one better, making their country’s first World Cup final after the 1998 squad’s sensational run to the semis before falling to tournament host and eventual champion, France.
Two decades later, Les Bleus’ World Cup-winning captain, Didier Deschamps will coach against a Croatia side whose federation president is Davor Suker, the top scorer at France ’98.
Croatia will be significant underdogs against a squad with far more pedigree as it looks to become just the ninth team to win a World Cup.
Meanwhile, a single star above England’s crest will serve as a reminder The Three Lions maybe weren’t as close as they thought they were.
England manager Gareth Southgate addresses his players following their 2-1 World Cup semifinal loss to Croatia on Wednesday in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.