‘THE FIERY ONES’ IN FINAL PUSH
Exhausted Croatia train sights on France in World Cup climax
Croatia’s exhausted and battered players set their sights on the World Cup final against France on Thursday as England reflected on a missed opportunity to end more than half a century of pain.
Luka Modric’s team were taken to extra-time for the third consecutive match in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday but somehow found the energy to overcome England 2-1.
Croatia have now played the equivalent of a whole match more than Didier Deschamps’ team ahead of Sunday’s final in the Russian capital but must gird themselves for one final push for glory.
In beating Gareth Southgate’s young team, Croatia have surpassed the achievement of the heroes of 1998, who reached the semi-finals in France in their first World Cup as an independent nation.
The victory sparked wild celebrations in the Balkan nation, where tens of thousands of fans poured onto the streets and squares, singing, letting off flares and waving red-white-and-blue flags.
“Dream, Dream, Dream! Croatia are in the World Cup final,” said the Sportske Novosti newspaper, adding that coach Zlatko Dalic “has entered into legend.”
“The Fiery Ones are in the final, the nation is in a trance — one more step to the title!” said the Jutarnji List, using the team’s nickname.
Dalic said there would be no excuses from his team despite their exertions over the past two weeks.
“This is fantastic. Two players played with half a leg, but it didn’t show. In extra-time nobody wanted to be substituted.
“This shows character and is what makes me proud. Nobody gave up,” said Dalic.
“We prepared to get to the final and we want to play it,” he said.
For England, the emotions are mixed — pride at reaching the last four is tempered by disappointment at letting a golden opportunity slip through their fingers.
They were on course for their first final since 1966 when they took the lead through Kieran Trippier’s superb early free-kick, but Croatia hit back through Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic in front of 78,000 spectators.
In London, an initial wave of elation turned to heartbreak as 30,000 beer-soaked fans in Hyde Park watched their team come up short.
Around 26 million people are believed to have watched the match on TV in Britain.
But despite the bitter disappointment, captain Harry Kane said England had restored pride during their run to the semi-finals and could use it as a springboard for success.
Kane looks set to claim the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s leading scorer, but the Tottenham star rarely looked like adding to his six goals against Croatia.
France, who boast a powerful mix of youth and experience, will start as favourites when they play the third World Cup final in their history after they beat Belgium 10 in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday.