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Thanks for a fun time, England, but Croatia’s class told in the end

Related Story: Super Mario Mandzukic denies England as Croatia reaches World Cup final Related Story: Croatian players crash into photographer, kiss him madly while celebrating winner

England's run to the World Cup semi-finals was exciting, fun and unexpected, but ultimately they were outclassed by the first team of real quality they faced in the knock-out rounds.

With the 2-1 loss to Croatia, the Three Lions essentially hit their ceiling.

Nothing encapsulated the sheer unlikelihood of England's tilt at the tournament than the "It's coming home" phenomenon.

It's hard to remember now, but the song was sung with an almost totally ironic tone at the start of the World Cup, until it snowballed into a pandemic affirmation anthem as England progressed to the final four.

Hindsight is 20-20, sure, but football was never coming home, at least not at Russia 2018.

In World Cups past, England has stumbled at the round of 16 or quarter-finals stage, but this time around it scraped through against a James-less Colombia and a blunt Sweden.

For a while in the semi-final it genuinely looked like Gareth Southgate's side were going to make all the football hipsters eat humble pie, and dump the technically brilliant Croats out of the tournament.

Gareth Southgate consoles Dele Alli

But it was Croatia which booked a date with France in Monday's final, a result which looked inevitable from about the time it scored an equalising goal through Ivan Perisic in the 68th minute.

For Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, apparently it was never in doubt.

"Those experts who thought that England would progress to the final are not experts," he said after the game.

"If they were, they would have known Croatia are the better team."

England used its weapons and used them well

In the early stages of the match, England kept doing all the things that had got it this far in the first place; the players in white ran like demons, they harried the Croatians, they set off on quicksilver quick raids and they looked dangerous at free-kicks.

Their chances were given a huge shot in the arm when Kieran Trippier fired in a superb free kick in the fifth minute. Having the high ground in a game like this is a glorious advantage, and England made it count for the entire first half.

Croatia looked flustered as it attempted to instil its passing style on the game. England was bustling and buzzing and would not let its opponents settle.

Southgate's side has not played the most beautiful football in Russia, but its speed, vigour and brilliantly executed set pieces have been refreshing to watch.

Had Harry Kane taken his chance from close range to make it 2-0, it would have likely been too much for an exhausted Croatia to come back from.

Harry Kane sees his chance snuffed out against Croatia

In a reflection of England's overall performance, Kane too made hay against weak opposition in the group stage before failing to really impose himself on the rest of the tournament.

He is a good striker who now looks likely to end up as the World Cup's top scorer by virtue of his three penalties, two tap-ins and a close-range header, but reports of him being an elite striker have been greatly exaggerated.

Croatia's talent proved too much

Slowly, steadily, Croatia began to take control. After half-time, Dalic switched his wingers Perisic and Ante Rebic and both showed more accuracy and industry.

The midfield dream team of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric began to hum, with Modric especially casting his mesmeric spell over the game.

The Real Madrid man should win the Golden Ball for player of the tournament, and probably the Ballon D'Or as the best player in the world in the last year as well.

Ivan Perisic celebrates equaliser against England

Like many great athletes, he seems to conjure more out of his slight frame than should be possible. He often looked tired, crumbling even, in the latter stages of the match. Then moments later he would spray a 50-yard pass with such perfection it might as well have been a relaxed training session.

Mario Mandzukic is almost the opposite; a huge, powerful player who usually looks ungainly. He is capable of moments of his own, though, and it was his goal that sealed Croatia's spot in the final.

The strike in extra time was a product of pressure, if not brilliant build-up play. Perisic won a header on the edge of the box and Mandzukic simply reacted quicker than his marker, John Stones.

It had been a long game and a long tournament, and Stones switched off for a fraction of a second. And that was enough for the Juventus forward to shimmer past him like a wraith and lash the ball into the back of the net.

It's moments like these that decide World Cup semi-finals.

Modric's post-game comments indicated his side had used some of the England hype as inspiration.

"English journalists, pundits from television, they underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake. All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying, 'OK, today we will see who will be tired'."

A story even more incredible than England's run

So it's Croatia, the side flagged as a "dark horse" before every tournament, which has finally realised its potential and reached a final.

While much of the narrative in Australia has centred around plucky England's progression, Croatia's story is even more remarkable.

The country, which only declared independence in 1991 and has a population of just over 4 million, has reached one World Cup semi-final (1998) and now the showpiece game.

It has battled through three extra-time games in the knock-out stages, penalty shoot-out wins over Denmark and Russia and then the come-from-behind victory in the semi, for the right to play France.

A win against Didier Deschamps's glamour boys would be nothing short of astonishing.

Meanwhile, when the dust settles and the disappointment fades, England can look back on this as a summer of celebration, rather than an opportunity lost.

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