England, Belgium still have something to give World Cup fans

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These teams are not favorites, they are not marquee names, and they are not giants. Therefore, as Saturday’s much criticized third-place match comes our way, two dejected teams meet in a meaningless match still with something to earn, something to gain, something to work for.

At its core, the third-place match is utterly pointless. Two teams who saw their chance at glory derailed just days earlier are trudged back out onto the pitch to play for a shadow trophy, something with hollow meaning and provides little consolation for players who are still in the process of moving on from the heart-wrenching result days before.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

However, given pre-tournament expectations, these teams can still be happy to have reached this point, and could find motivation in leaving on a high note, especially given the alternative of capping such a promising showing in Russia with a pair of losses.

England, especially, will have plenty to prove. The Three Lions’ performance in Russia has been hailed as a smashing success despite falling just short to Cinderella story Croatia in the semifinals, and Gareth Southgate can put a feather in his cap by taking down one of the strongest rosters in the field. While they won’t publicly admit it, many of the England players will also hope to strengthen their cases for individual awards, with Harry Kane hoping to secure the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer, while Kane, Jesse Lingard, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, and Jordan Henderson all have a shot at earning a place on the World Cup Best XI. Finally, they will also be looking to avenge their group stage loss to the Red Devils in a game that had little meaning to either side.

[ MORE: Pre-Final PST World Cup roundtable ]

Gareth Southgate himself has some growing to do as well, and this match presents the perfect opportunity. He was out-managed in the semifinal against Croatia, failing to adjust while his midfield was stretched by great full-back play from the opposition. Against a star-studded Belgian squad, Southgate can prove he is no newbie, and has a fantastic chance to right the ship and earn player trust on the tactics board. Winning this match would give the players, the fans, and most importantly the front office confidence that Southgate’s success in the 2018 World Cup was more than a flash in the pan, and that he is ultimately the right man for the job not just in the immediate future but long-term through the next World Cup cycle.

For Belgium, Roberto Martinez will hope to find a silver lining in a tournament full of what-ifs. Belgium was not listed among the Brazil, Germany, France favorites contingent, but did find itself just beneath that upper echelon of giants, a roster bursting with Golden Generation talent. While a trophy won’t be hoisted, Martinez can prove to the world that this tournament was not wasted, and coming so close was a performance worthy of praise. Like the English, there are Belgian players who have something to prove on an individual basis. While the Golden Ball will likely be awarded to a player in the France Croatia final, players like Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, and Thomas Meunier could be part of the tournament’s Best XI, while Thibaut Courtois has a serious chance at earning the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper in the field.

[ MORE: PST’s World Cup Best XI ]

Four years is an eternity in this realm of soccer, and while that’s how long these players will have to wait at true redemption, a win on Saturday provides them with a way of coping with the disappointment, an avenue to channel that frustration and morph some of it into appreciation for the opportunity they received and the achievement they attained, even if the ultimate goal failed to fully manifest. Both these sides have germinated strong futures thanks to the results over the last four weeks, and they have taken the next step in becoming a force both on the European and World stage.

So while the third-place match will continue to be the butt of jokes all over the world – most of them warranted – there is still something left to earn, something left on the line in Moscow on Saturday. It won’t have nearly the audience that Sunday will draw, and that will be understandable.

Walker: Southgate ‘backbone of this team; man’s a gentleman’

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Oh, the difference 24 months can make.

[ MORE: Deschamps: EURO heartbreak drives France to World Cup final ]

The entire footballing world could infer pretty safely that the vibe surrounding the England camp had changed massively between the time the Three Lions were eliminated from the 2016 European Championship — at the hands of Iceland — and Wednesday, when Gareth Southgate‘s side was defeated by Croatia in the semifinal of the 2018 World Cup.

Following Wednesday’s heartbreaking failure, Kyle Walker, who was in the squad and on the field when the full-time whistle blew and England were effectively embarrassed after losing in such hopeless fashion, spoke passionately of the 180-degree turnaround in terms of belief and support that he has witnessed over two years, and that he felt in the moments immediately following the end of extra time — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was there in France, in the Iceland game, and it was completely different to that. For them to still be singing when we’re seeing friends and families, chanting our names and singing the manager’s name, is completely different. And I think we need to take full credit for that because we’ve changed that.

“I think the football has brought the nation together, people are going to pubs and celebrating, and that’s what football should be about. It’s enjoyable, we all love to play the game and fans love to support it. So it’s hats off to us. It’s unlucky we couldn’t bring it home for them, but hopefully there’s time in the future.”

“There’s nothing better, when people are writing you off and saying, ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt,’ slagging people off, it’s kind of saying: ‘Well, there you go, have that back at you.’ But we do it for ourselves as well.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am to share the dressing room with these players. We’ve all grown up watching England, and to represent your country at a semifinal of a World Cup, there’s no better feeling.”

[ MORE: Mourinho: England needs to keep coaches for next World Cup ]

As for Southgate, to hear Walker tell it, there’s not a single person in the locker room that wouldn’t run through a brick wall for him.

“The man’s a gentleman. That’s the best way to describe him. He’s been in our shoes. He relates to us massively. He knows what to say at the right time. And he makes you feel like you’re the best player in the world. He gives you that confidence, and I think that he needs to take the most credit out of everyone of us.

“We’re the guys who are running on the pitch, but he’s the backbone of this team. He’s made sure that everyone has stuck together through good and bad moments, and made sure our feet stayed on the floor. I can’t put into words how much credit he deserves for this.

And to think, Southgate only wound up in the job — one he pretty openly and firmly stated he didn’t want — because Sam Allardyce incriminated himself in a newspaper sting operation after 67 days on the job.

Southgate was the England U-21 manager at the time. Fast-forward 22 months, and he’s a near-lock to receive a four-year contract and be tasked with leading his country through the upcoming EURO and World Cup cycles.

Player ratings: Croatia v England

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Croatia beat England in extra time of an epic 2018 World Cup semifinal.

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Kieran Trippier‘s early free kick filled the Three Lions with hope but Croatia fought back valiantly as Ivan Perisic scored and set up Mario Mandzukic to net the winner in the 109th minute.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Below you can find our marks out of 10 for each player from both teams.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


Croatia

Danijel Subasic – 6 – Great stop from Harry Kane in the first half. Positioning poor on Trippier’s goal?

Sime Vrsaljko – 7 – Some rare forays forward and a fine cross for Perisic’s goal. No sign of his injury.

Dejan Lovren – 5 – Looked rattle all game long and could have easily picked up two yellow cards.

Domagoj Vida – 6 – Solid enough and managed to keep Kane quiet.

Ivan Strinic – 6 – Steady but forced off in extra time with an injury.

Ante Rebic – 6 – Gave Ashley Young some issues with his surging late runs. Booked and reckless in extra time.

Marcelo Brozovic – 8 – Dug deep to win the ball back in the heart of Croatia’s midfield, especially in the second half.

Luka Modric – 7 – At the heart of everything good for Croatia and subbed out late on as he looked exhausted.

Ivan Rakitic – 8 – Won the ball back on multiple occasions and came out on top in his midfield battle. Extra experience showed.

Ivan Perisic – 9 – Fantastic finish for his goal, hit the post and had several shots blocked. The Inter Milan man was on fire and set up Manduzkic for the winner with a clever header.

Mario Mandzukic – 7 – Didn’t have much service and was frustrated for most of the game but popped up when it mattered most to score.

Subs
Josip Pivaric on for Ivan Strinic (95′) – 5 – Did his best to stop England’s attackers and stood tall.
Andrej Kramaric on for Ante Rabic (101′) – 5 – A few decent chances.
Vedran Corluka on for Mario Mandzukic (115′) – N/A
Milan Badelj on for Luka Modric (119′) – N/A


England

Jordan Pickford – 6 – A mix-up in the second half with Stones, some poor kicks in the first half but a great save from Mandzukic.

Kyle Walker – 5 – Some really shaky moments in the second half around a decent block from Perisic. Subbed in extra time.

John Stones – 5 – Tried to calm everyone down. Header cleared off the line in extra time but caught out on Croatia’s winner. Showed a lack of experience at a key moment.

Harry Maguire – 6 – Some good runs out of defense but sent an easy header wide and not his best defensive display.

Kieran Trippier – 7 – A stunning free kick to put England ahead early but caught out for the equalizer and didn’t make the most of some good crossing opportunities. Forced off late in extra time.

Jordan Henderson – 5 – Tried his best to drive England on from midfield but he was totally overrun in the second half but Modric and Rakitic. Dier replaced him.

Dele Alli – 6 – Another display where he couldn’t get on the ball and impact the game.

Jesse Lingard – 6 – Some nice touches in and around the box but missed a big chance in the first half.

Ashley Young – 6 – A fine late tackle to deny Rebic in the first half but hardly got forward and subbed out for extra time.

Raheem Sterling – 4 – Perhaps his worst display of the tournament. Got into some promising positions but couldn’t get the final pass or shot right. Subbed out in second half.

Harry Kane – 5 – A quiet evening for the skipper who was hit hard time and time again by Croatia’s defense. Missed a great chance in the first half and a header at the back post late on in normal time. Unlike him.

Subs
Marcus Rashford on for Raheem Sterling (74′) – 5 – Some decent runs forward but no real service.
Danny Rose on for Ashley Young (90′) – 6 – Some fine surges forward to pin Croatia back.
Eric Dier on for Jordan Henderson (97′) – 5 – Tried to shore up the midfield. Had one shot from distance.
Jamie Vardy on for Kyle Walker (112′) – N/A – No time to impact the game.

Croatia stun England, reach World Cup final

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  • Trippier put England ahead
  • Perisic equalized for Croatia
  • Manduzkic scores winner in extra time
  • Croatian second smallest nation to reach World Cup final

Croatia fought back to beat England 2-1 in their 2018 World Cup semifinal in Moscow on Wednesday as Mario Mandzukic scored the winner in the second half of extra time.

[ MORE: Player ratings out of 10 ]

Kieran Trippier gave England the lead after five minutes but the Three Lions wasted several chances and were punished as Croatia dominated the second half. Ivan Perisic got the equalizer and hit the post in the second half of normal time and he then set up Manduzkic’s winner to send Croatia to the final.

After their third-straight extra time win (the first nation to ever do that at a World Cup)Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia will play France in Moscow on Sunday in the final, while Gareth Southgate‘s England will play Belgium in Saint Petersburg on Saturday in the third-place match.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

England got off to a perfect start as Dele Alli was brought down by Luka Modric on the edge of the box to win a free kick and Trippier curled home a stunner to make it 1-0.

What a way to score your first goal for England.

Trippier sent over a corner soon after which Harry Maguire nodded wide of the far post as England battered Croatia early on. Croatia finally got going and had an effort on goal as Perisic dragged a shot just wide, but at the other end Kane, who should have put England 2-0 up.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

England’s skipper was played in by Jesse Lingard and although Danijel Subasic saved his initial effort Kane then smashed the post from two yards out as the offside flag was raised but VAR would have surely overturned the decision.

Croatia cranked up the pressure before half time as England blocked a few shots from distance, then Ashley Young denied Ante Rebic with a well-timed challenge. Lingard slotted wide at the other end as the game opened up and right on half time Dejan Lovren went down in the box as VAR checked the call but nothing was given.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

At the start of the second half Croatia cranked through the gears but England looked dangerous on the break as Lingard’s shot deflected over the bar and Trippier’s cross almost found Kane in the six-yard box.

Raheem Sterling then got free but he couldn’t get his shot off and moments later Perisic had a fierce shot blocked by Kyle Walker who put his body on the line.

Croatia finally equalized as Sime Vrsaljko’s superb cross found Perisic in the center of the box and he prodded home brilliantly to make it 1-1. That goal gave Croatia the momentum as Perisic then hit the post as Walker and Pickford were involved in a mix-up.

England had a decent chance late on as Trippier’s free kick to the back post found Kane but he couldn’t connect properly on his header and nodded wide.

In extra time England regained their composure and they thought they had regained the lead as Stones’ header from a corner looked in but Vrsaljko got back to head off the line.

Pickford then denied Mandzukic right on half time with a huge stop as he flicked the effort over the bar bravely. Brozovic then drilled over from a short corner as Croatia’s chances continue to come.

Manduzkic gave Croatia the lead as Perisic headed forward and the Croatian legend snuck behind Stones and finished across goal to take his nation to the World Cup final.

VIDEO: Mandzukic puts Croatia ahead in extra time

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Mario Mandzukic picked up a date with the World Cup Final, and it looks like the trophy is not coming home.

Juventus’ towering striker seemed due for a big moment, and they hardly get bigger than this.

[ MORE: France beats Belgium ]

Ivan Perisic, who scored Croatia’s equalizer, won a 50-50 ball with Kieran Trippier, who scored England’s opener, and the ball popped out of the reach of Kyle Walker.

Mandzukic cut past the mark of John Stones, and squeezed a shot beyond the reach of Jordan Pickford.