Croatia ends England’s run, will face France in World Cup final

Croatia players celebrate their win over England at the 2018 World Cup.England’s dreams of a second World Cup title came to an end in the semifinals, but France’s dream is still alive. England fell to Croatia in extra time on Wednesday, while France ground out a win against Belgium the day before to earn a spot on Sunday’s final in Moscow. France was considered a pre-tournament championship contender and enters the final as the heavy favourite, while Croatia is in uncharted territory, having previously only reached the semifinals of a World Cup tournament.

Croatia’s road to the final has been as long as possible, with penalty kick victories over Denmark and Russia and an extra-time triumph over England in the elimination stages. Those three extra time periods add up to an entire 90 extra minutes on the pitch for all of Croatia’s key players, who are no doubt feeling the strain of that extra work. The Croatians needed to claw back after conceding an early goal to England, with goals by Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic providing the difference.

The semifinal berth is England’s best result at a World Cup since reaching the same stage in 1990, and this run by a youthful team could provide a solid foundation for future tournaments as players like Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Harry Kane, and Jesse Lingard all performed extremely well. But squandering a lead in the semifinals is a tough way to go out, and it’s unlikely England will ever see an easier road to a World Cup final after facing three teams who have never lifted the trophy.

France hasn’t missed a beat all tournament, winning with impressive displays of offense or defense depending on their opponent. They poured on the offense against Argentina’s porous defense, scoring four times in the round of 16, and they put two more past the stalwart defense of Uruguay in the quarterfinals. But it was France’s defense’s turn to shine in the semifinals against high-powered Belgium, which was fresh off a win over Brazil. A back line built around Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti and the terrific goaltending of Hugo Lloris combined to stifle a Belgian squad that had scored a tournament-leading 14 goals, blanking them in a 1-0 victory with the only goal coming courtesy of Umtiti.

Belgian players were frustrated with France’s defensive display, and said so after the match, with team captain Eden Hazard and goaltender Thibaut Courtois chastising the French squad for playing a boring, ugly defensive style to counter Belgium’s attacking flair.