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Saturday 22 September 2018

English taught a harsh lesson by classy Croats

DREAM OVER: England manager Gareth Southgate. Pic: Getty
DREAM OVER: England manager Gareth Southgate. Pic: Getty

England was dreaming, but it ended up in a nightmare that could take a generation to wake up from.

The English nation hoped that English values - hard work, honesty, a steely spine - could see their football team through this test and into the World Cup final.

Instead, what we got was a game-plan scripted by Theresa May and Boris Johnson: a positive-looking start to a major project which ran aground due to lack of attention to detail, inability to grasp the realities and a failure to know where you were going.

As the UK prepares to exit Europe, the English team exits the race for the World Cup. They have a game to play, Saturday's third-place playoff against Belgium. A snoozefest in the making, a game no one wants to hang around for.

And England can only hold themselves to blame. The best chance of winning a World Cup in decades fell apart as an early lead was thrown away, an inability to put a sluggish-looking Croatia side to bed when they were there for the taking.

When the first big question of Russia 2018 was asked of England, they flopped. Like the Brexit plan, they had no answer, doubtful they even understood the question. Class wins out over caution, and Croatia deserve their place in the final.

This game, and a place in the final, was there for the taking by English hands. Croatia looked sluggish and slow from the off, a big blow to their morale when Kieran Trippier gave England that early lead with a free kick.

Both teams have had to go the distance, beyond the regulation 90 minutes, in the knock-out stages but the Croatians looked as if those long battles had taken more out of them than their counterparts.

One of the strengths of this Croatia side is that, while they have one talisman (Modric) assisted by some classy acolytes (Rakitic and Perisic), they are not wholly reliant on them, in the way that Portugal don't play if Ronaldo is off form.

That was lucky for them last night as Rakitic appeared to be asleep for a long spell, most of the first half in fact. But he was awoken from his slumber and he was sublime for the last half-hour of normal time and again in extra time.

Mario Mandukic was another Croat who has a sleepy look about him. Irish football has bitter memories of this lad: Mandzukic's goal 17 minutes into Ireland's first game at Euro 2012 effectively meant that the tournament was over for Ireland before it has begun.

Now 32, Mandzukic has passed his peak but his goal in extra time showed that strikers don't need to play a great game to score a goal with great importance. Greatness finds a way, somehow.

The sight of England in Sunday's final would have fed into a new era of English nationalism.

Instead, class acts like Modric and Perisic get to play on that big stage, a stage they deserve.

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