England fall short but open the door for football’s honours to follow them home

From the very modern video reveal of the squad, England’s youngest at a World Cup since 1958, the FA’s message has been to reconnect with the nation. Box parks grew, while the inclusion of a designated YouTube channel, the Lions’ Den, had players speaking daily to their supporters.

We have all had our favourites from this band of brothers, from Jordan Pickford getting the rave on and Telford kitman Pat Frost putting up his flag before matches, to Harry ‘Slab Head’ Maguire telling his girlfriend Fern Hawkins to remember the bins on Monday.

Gareth Southgate’s rallying cries after Colombia and Sweden will live long in the memory for those fans whose journeys from Europe’s backwaters – from Valletta, Vilnius, Ljubljana – wound up here at Moscow’s Luzhniki.

They saw a moment of history in the Battle at Spartak Stadium, the impossible made possible by Pickford’s big left hand clawing away Carlos Bacca’s penalty, a first World Cup shootout win.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSweden were swept aside with such ease never experienced before in a tournament quarter-final. Versions of ‘Three Lions’ designed to be tongue-in-cheek – we’re here for a good time, but not a long time – took on a more visceral meaning. Football had already come home.

A 20-year-old Gary Neville was told by Stuart Pearce in the aftermath of the penalty shootout defeat to Germany at Euro ’96 to ‘enjoy this while you can. It may not happen again.’

The hope is that this is just the beginning, but the likelihood is that they will never get a better opportunity, a better fall of the draw to reach a World Cup final. If it was measured on world rankings, it would have been the fourth easiest route to a final in the tournament’s history.

They will return home heroes, but we will all be thinking of that window in the first half when it looked like England could have blown Croatia away. Ultimately, superior quality told. The brilliant Ivan Perisic punished a flat-footed Kyle Walker and wanted it more than Kieran Trippier in setting up Mario Mandzukic for the hammer-blow.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGIt was England who tired first, and it goes back to naivety and experience. The initial high tempo led to them, not Croatia, looking more fatigued despite not being the side in their third successive period of extra time.

England players covered just under three miles more than Croatia (91.8 to 89), but they covered less when in possession of the ball (28.9 to 33.8), while England covered 38.2 miles without the ball compared to 31.3 miles by Zlato Dalic’s men.

England’s top speed during the match eclipsed that of their opponents (20.7mph from Raheem Sterling compared to 19.9mph) but 530 sprints from Croatian players to England’s 488 again pointed to the fact that one team was far more economical with their use of energy than the other.

Luka Modric began to dictate, 10 minutes into the second-half. Walker’s booking for dissent seemed to affect his game. The average positions for England players showed that both wing-backs played deeper than in previous matches, while Harry Kane was effectively a midfielder come the final 20 minutes.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaCroatia had shown too much respect for England in the first-half, but come the second period, Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic played in more advanced positions.

England had the chance to be bold and push forward, but they found themselves increasingly pinned back as more and more regains were picked up by those in black and blue shirts. There was a shift in composure.

Kane is set to win the golden ball, but his performances dwindled since the group stages. The abiding memory will be his chance here after 29 minutes, long before Croatia grew into the contest. VAR will have ruled either one of his shots onside had he stroked the ball past Danijel Subasic. It was the double-save of the tournament never officially recorded.

Kane didn’t recover thereafter, and Croatia relied on their team ethic to overcome inexperience. England ultimately lacked the creativity in midfield, where Ivan Rakitic and Modric increasingly looked like they had the game in the palm of their hands as Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard ran out of legs.

Possession dropped from 47 to 35 per cent in the second period as Croatia turned the screw, streetwise, targeting space vacated by Young down England’s left side. Eleven shots on goal, half the number managed by Croatia, with just two on target and 25 crosses fewer than their opponents tell you that England fell short.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaLingard and Kane failed to make an impact, while Raheem Sterling was hooked prematurely, making way for an out-of-sorts Marcus Rashford. Too many players just didn’t turn up on Wednesday night for England in an attacking sense.  Croatia deserve their place in the final, despite an improvement from Southgate’s side in extra time.

But the reflections of Walker the morning after the heart-breaking end of the dream encapsulates the overriding mood from this ‘glorious, beer-soaked Russian summer,’ as the Daily Telegraph’s chief football writer Sam Wallace described it in the opening bar to his match report.

Walker wrote: “I’m still heartbroken and never felt so gutted. But there’s something I want to say. This past month, I’ve seen videos going around, photos been sent to me. That felt so good for us here in Russia, and united us more and more, just like it did in our country.”

He continued: “We might live in a time where sometimes it’s easier to be negative than positive, or to divide than to unite, but England: let’s keep this unity alive. I love you.”

England players arrived back at the ForRestMix Hotel at 6.30am on Thursday morning. Exhausted but in the knowledge that psychological barriers had been overcome during the course of the past three weeks.

GettyImages-996390742.jpgBelgium, again, on Saturday could well be a re-run of matchday three. It’s an opportunity for some of the players with fresher legs who have been part of the journey to show their qualities, to even put right their defeat to Roberto Martinez’s reserves in Kaliningrad.

The manner in which England faded in the second period suggests a return to an experimental side is the only way they can hope of achieving bronze, regardless.

The energy of Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold down the flanks, with Fabian Delph alongside Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Eric Dier in midfield behind Rashford and Jamie Vardy up front would make a lot of sense.

Furthermore, the FA will be under pressure from Premier League clubs to allow Southgate’s first-team players to gain rest before the new domestic season starts in less than a month.

Trippier is unlikely to remain in Russia for another four days after hobbling off at the end of extra time, while stalwarts John Stones and Maguire may also step aside, but in shuffling the pack, England wouldn’t be conceding the contest as a dead rubber.

GettyImages-996430268.jpgWe all know what happened after Italia ’90, and the unexpected failures at the following European Championships and no-show at the USA ’94. The success of the junior teams can’t be lost on the senior squad.

The hard fact is that a group-stage exit in 2014 has been followed by a semi-final defeat after extra time, and this cannot become viewed as an isolated, beautiful break from the norm.

Academy coaches should be encouraged to blood players through rather than taking on those from abroad, while managers should look to English youth more in the belief they don’t have to spend big money on foreign imports.

The hope is that the dwindling number of English players in the Premier League – clocked last season at around 30 per cent – now experiences an upward curve, while British managers will also take courage from Southgate’s achievements.

How these brave young men emulated Bobby Robson’s boys of 28 years ago will not be remembered for avoiding one of the world’s great footballing superpowers, but for the camaraderie built in the forests of Repino.

For the inflatable unicorn races and fans bleating out Oasis’ hit Don’t Look Back In Anger behind the goal long after the final whistle, and those up and down the country who dared to dream that football, unexpectedly, was coming home.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSeven of England’s starting XI last night will still be in their 20s when the next World Cup comes around in Qatar 2022, while 12 of Southgate’s 23-man squad could play in the next two tournaments. They now understand the preparation that goes into such a slog.

Small details have cost England at the penultimate hurdle, but optimism remains for the future. The parade has been put on hold, at least four another two years, but the reception at Heathrow next week will resonate more for its spontaneity and raw emotion.

There will be no choreography needed. There’s no stopping fans from flocking to the streets to hail their national treasures. With the final of Euro 2020 scheduled to take place at Wembley, the challenge now is to handle the desire for more.

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