England’s unexpected World Cup adventure finally came to a halt on Wednesday night in Moscow, with the youthful Three Lions succumbing to Croatia’s nous and experience in extra time.
Taking part in a World Cup semi-final for the first time since 1990, England started brightly, and took the lead after just five minutes.
Dele Alli was fouled outside the box by Luka Modric, albeit via the very slightest of contact.
Fellow Spurs man Kieran Tripper, a creative revelation in Russia, stepped up and duly dispatched a superb free-kick from 20-or-so-yards.
After the break, Croatia began to impose themselves as the tide turned at the Luzhniki Stadium, with Modric’s irresistible midfield influence growing minute by minute.
Croatia would force a deserved equaliser on 68 minutes, with Ivan Perisic getting his foot to a superb cross from Sime Vrsaljko, who put in a tireless shift at right-back.
Soon after, Perisic almost nabbed the winner, only to see his effort come back off the post.
England would, however, hold on to assure that the thrilling game would go on past the 90.
Despite having been involved in extra-time and penalties in their previous two knockout games, Croatia’s battle-hardened stars still looked dangerous and England appeared the more fatigued.
Cementing his place as one of the Three Lions’ top performers in Russia, Pickford would then thwart Mario Mandzukic with a fine save.
However, in the 109th minute of the epic clash, the Juventus striker broke the heart of a nation by ramming home the winner, firing low past the England ‘keeper after John Stones was caught momentarily ball-watching.
The game would end in 2-1 win for Croatia, with Zlatko Dalić’s side running out deserved winners.
As for England, on the one hand they lost to the first really decent side they met after an incredibly fortuitous route through the knock-out stages.
On the other, the young bunch of players, marshalled and inspired by Gareth Southgate, put a much-needed smile on the face on the English public as well as hinting at a very bright future for a once-despondent national team.
Croatia, drawn from a nation of just four million people, now face France in the final on Sunday, in a repeat of the 1998 semi-final.
Les Bleus will no doubt be favourites to lift the title, but in Croatia, they’ll be facing a motivated ‘Golden Generation’ side at the peak of their powers and afraid of no-one.
The day before, England will face Belgium for the second time this tournament, with a bronze medal at stake.
All in all, not a bad end to what has been a quite magical summer for the Three Lions.