It’s not com­ing home

Young English side loses to Croa­tia in World Cup semi­fi­nal matchup

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - SPORTS - KURTIS LARSON

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.

RYAN PIERSE/GeTTY im­aGes

Eng­land man­ager Gareth South­gate ad­dresses his play­ers fol­low­ing their 2-1 World Cup semi­fi­nal loss to Croa­tia on Wed­nes­day in Moscow’s Luzh­niki Sta­dium.

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