MOSCOW – Croatia defeated England 2-1 on Wednesday in an extra-time thriller to become the second-smallest nation in history to reach the World Cup final.
The Balkan side, who came into the semifinal at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium having spent more than two hours on the pitch in each of their two previous matches, had to come from behind after conceding early on a free kick.
Uruguay was home to some 1.7 million people when they won the final of the inaugural World Cup tournament in 1930. Even in 1950, when they stunned giant neighbor Brazil to hoist the trophy for a second time, the Uruguayans numbered fewer than 2 million.
An independent nation for less than three decades, Croatia – who finished third in the 1998 World Cup – has a population of a bit more than 4 million.
England, World Cup winners in 1966 as the host nation, last reached the semifinals in 1990, but were the favorites ahead of Wednesday’s contest, due to expectations of Croatian fatigue after two successive matches decided on penalty kicks and the Three Lions’ prowess on set pieces.
And it was a set piece that gave England the early lead.
In the 5th minute, the referee awarded the English a free kick for Luka Modric’s foul on Dele Alli. Kieran Trippier delivered a perfect strike to put his team ahead 1-0.
Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard had chances to extend England’s lead against a Croatian side that struggled to mount any kind of attack in the first half.
Croatia was better after the break and pulled level in the 68th minute when Ivan Perisic connected with a cross to beat England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
Three minutes later, the post intervened to prevent Perisic from giving Croatia the lead and the draw held up for the balance of the 90 minutes.
The first chance in extra time belonged to England, a powerful header by John Stones that might have found the back of the net if Croatia defender Sime Vrsaljko hadn’t got his head to the ball on the line.
At the other end of the field, Pickford came far off his line to make a spectacular stop against Mario Mandzukic.
But the Juventus striker was not to be denied for long. In the 109th minute, he drilled the ball past Pickford with a magnificent assist from Perisic to make it 2-1 Croatia.
Having already exhausted their four substitutions, England were reduced to 10 men when Trippier had to leave with a groin injury in the 115th minute and their frantic push to equalize fell short.