Ex­hausted Croa­tia train sights on France in World Cup cli­max

New Straits Times - - SPORT -

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.

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