DOWN TO TWO

Croa­tia heads to its first World Cup fi­nal

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE -

Mario Mandzu­kic of Croa­tia cel­e­brates with Ivan Perisic af­ter scor­ing his team’s sec­ond goal dur­ing the 2-1 World Cup semi­fi­nal vic­tory over Eng­land in Moscow on Wed­nes­day. Croa­tia heads for first World Cup cham­pi­onship match, meets France on Sun­day,

MOSCOW — When the fi­nal whis­tle blew and they knew they were go­ing to their first World Cup fi­nal, the Croa­t­ians ran to their jump­ing and cheer­ing fans in their iconic red-and­white check­ered jer­seys.

Mario Mandzu­kic scored the win­ning goal in the 109th minute and Croa­tia shocked Eng­land, ral­ly­ing for 2-1 vic­tory Wed­nes­day.

De­fender Sime Vr­saljko kept the score even in ex­tra time by head­ing a shot off the goal line about 10 min­utes be­fore Mandzu­kic scored for Croa­tia, which is the first team in 28 years to come from be­hind to win a World Cup semi­fi­nal match.

“Men­tally strong team,” mid­fielder Ivan Rakatic said. “It’s just un­be­liev­able to get back in the game in this way.”

The Croats will play France for the ti­tle on Sun­day in its big­gest sport­ing mo­ment since be­com­ing an in­de­pen­dent na­tion in 1991.

France, which won its only ti­tle at home in 1998, will have an ex­tra day of rest af­ter beat­ing Bel­gium 1-0 on Tues­day. Croa­tia played three straight ex­tra­time matches — two ended in penalty kicks.

Foot­ball will not be com­ing home to Eng­land, and there will be no ti­tle to match the 1966 tri­umph at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium. Harry Kane & Co. will deal with the same dis­ap­point­ment that felled Shearer and Platt, Gazza and Wazza, Beck­ham and Ger­rard.

Croa­tia’s legs at the start seemed to carry the weight of so many min­utes in the knock­out stage, and a press­ing Eng­land went up quickly. Kevin Trip­pier curled in a free kick in the fifth minute.

But Croa­tia found en­ergy af­ter the break when the game opened up, mak­ing Eng­land’s missed firsthalf op­por­tu­ni­ties seem all-the-more sig­nif­i­cant.

Ivan Perisic tied the score in the 68th minute with his fourth goal of the tour­na­ment.

Rakitic switched the ball from left flank to right, where Vr­saljko crossed. Walker at­tempted to clear div­ing header but Perisic jumped and from be­hind raised his left boot over Walker’s head to poke the ball past goal­keeper Jor­dan Pick­ford from about 8 yards.

Four min­utes later, Perisic hit Pick­ford’s near post.

Mandzu­kic scored af­ter Walker stuck out a leg to block Josip Pi­varic’s cross. The ball popped up and Perisic out­jumped Trip­per to head the ball be­hind the de­fense.

Mandzu­kic alertly re­acted to the un­ex­pected ball in the penalty area, split­ting de­fend­ers John Stones and Harry Maguire, who had taken four short steps up. The ball bounced twice, Mandzu­kic ran onto it and one-timed a low, left-footed shot to Pick­ford’s left.

Mandzu­kic was mobbed by team­mates, who jumped on him in the cor­ner and trapped pho­tog­ra­phers un­der them in the crush.

Eng­land went ahead with its ninth set-piece goal of the tour­na­ment, af­ter Luca Mo­dric tripped Dele Alli, giv­ing Eng­land a free kick about 25 yards out in the cen­ter of the field.

Trip­pier struck the ball with his right foot and it rose above leap­ing De­jan Lovren and Mandzu­kic to the left of the des­per­ate dive of goal­keeper Dani­jel Suba­sic, who turned his head and watched the ball land in the up­per cor­ner.

With his first in­ter­na­tional goal, just over a year af­ter his Eng­land de­but, the 27-year-old Trip­pier joined David Beck­ham as the only English play­ers since 1966 to score on free kicks at the World Cup. Cho­ruses of “God Save the Queen” be­gan in Eng­land’s end.

Kane had a chance to dou­ble the lead in the 30th minute when Suba­sic made a slid­ing save on his short­range shot and Kane’s fol­low-up ef­fort from the end line hit the post and bounced off the keeper and up as the flag went up. Jesse Lin­gard sent an open 18-yard shot just wide in the 35th.

Eng­land had its mo­ments to come back but could not fin­ish its chances. Lin­gard failed to con­nect with a Kane through ball in 78th, Kane miss-hit a header off a free kick in stop­page time, and Stones’ header from a cor­ner was cleared off the line by Vr­saljko in the 99th.

DAN MUL­LAN / GETTY IM­AGES

FRANK AUGSTEIN/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Croa­tia’s Mario Mandzu­kic cel­e­brates af­ter scor­ing his side’s sec­ond goal dur­ing the semi­fi­nal match against Eng­land at the World Cup in the Luzh­niki Sta­dium on Wed­nes­day in Moscow.

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