By Ronald Blum
The Associated Press
MOSCOW — Croatia’s legs seemed heavy, burdened by the accumulated toll of consecutive penalty-kicks wins needed to get this far. England had gone ahead with a free kick just five minutes in, dominated play and appeared headed to its first World Cup final since 1966.
Then the second half started and it was as if a different Croatian team had replaced the lethargic one.
Ivan Perisic tied the score in the 68th minute, Mario Mandzukic got the go-ahead goal in the 109th and Croatia shocked England with a 2-1 victory Wednesday that advanced a nation of 4 million to a World Cup final against France.
“Mentally strong team,” midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. “It’s just unbelievable to get back in the game in this way.”
Croatia joined an exclusive club of 13 nations that advanced to a World Cup final, doing it in a tournament where powers Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain made early exits.
“They’ve had an incredible route to the final. They’ve shown remarkable character,” said England coach Gareth Southgate.
Croatia, coming off 360 intense minutes at soccer’s highest level, faces its biggest sporting moment since becoming an independent nation in 1991.
Fans back home in Zagreb took to the streets to celebrate, lighting flares and waving flags in a sea of exuberance.
Promise seemed about to be fulfilled for England when Kieran Trippier curled in a free kick in the fifth minute for his first international goal. But they could not hang on.
“Impossible to say anything to them that is going to make them feel better at this point,” Southgate said after England’s fourth straight loss in a major tournament semifinal.
Croatia tied the score after Rakitic switched the ball from left flank to right, where Vrsaljko crossed. Kyle Walker attempted a diving header to clear. Perisic jumped and from behind raised his left boot over Walker’s head to poke the ball past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford from about 8 yards for his fourth World Cup goal.
Mandzukic scored after Walker stuck out a leg to block Josip Pivaric’s cross. Mandzukic ran onto the ball and one-timed a low, left-footed shot to Pickford’s left.
Mandzukic ran to a corner and was mobbed by teammates.
Not long after, Dalic was thinking about the short recovery time before the final.
Rakitic was not worried.
“We still have lots of energy in the tank,” he said.