Saturday 25 May 2019

John Giles: England were beaten by better football but Croatia would have been lost without one man

Croatia's Luka Modric celebrates after the match
Croatia's Luka Modric celebrates after the match

I tip my hat to Gareth Southgate but for all England's honesty, effort and enthusiasm, they were beaten in the end by better football. Take a bow Luka Modric.

I wondered what would happen if England met a decent football team and I found out last night. They gave it a right go but Modric was too good for them.

To be fair, without him, Croatia would have been lost. They could easily have thrown the game away in a woeful first 45 minutes.

The test I wanted to see England given certainly didn't happen in that first-half. It was hard to believe that Croatia would approach a World Cup semi-final in what was almost a hangdog way.

I know they had two tough ties to get through to get to the semi-final but they looked hollowed out in the first ten minutes while England buzzed around the pitch with energy and purpose.

I honestly though they game would be over at half-time after Kieran Trippier's nicely-shaped free-kick gave England a perfect start.

They seemed to be able to create chances at will and there was nothing Croatia could do to stop them. With the exception of Modric, not one of Croatia's big guns turned up to play.

I thought England were very good in that spell, pressured Croatia high up the pitch and kept the ball moving at the pace Southgate needs to make his set-up work.

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He could have made a few changes with Modric in mind but he stuck to his guns and picked the same team that started against Sweden.

Towards the end of the half, there were the first signs that England were beginning to drop back and concede midfield to Modric but it was the other side of half-time when his influence really began to grow.

Croatia's attitude to the game changing radically in the second-half and players who looked like they were afraid began to play for the first time.

The equaliser came after a sustained period of decent play from Croatia and after England had retreated further and further back. They effectively invited Modric to step in and take the ball which he did to great effect.

Here at last was what I wanted to see and it took over an hour for Croatia to ask the questions which no team has done in the tournament yet. England did not cope well.

Just as Southgate's players could have been two or three in front if they had taken chances in the first-half, the post and Jordan Pickford stopped Croatia putting the game away.

Ivan Perisic delivered in the 68th minute and Croatia's confidence surged while England's calm organisation began to crack.

This was a bit like Liverpool Lite. Southgate's decision to use just one midfielder was fine when England were on the front foot but when they didn't have the ball and were faced with a switched on opposition, they were in trouble.

I suspected this would be the case if a good team ever took England on and particularly if a good playmaker got to work. Modric is as good is there is in the game at the moment and he took control of the game.

They were moments when England were hanging on towards the end of normal time and against in the first period of extra-time. Pickford kept them in it with one very brave save to block Mario Mandzukic.

I haven't been a big fan of Mandzukic in this World Cup and actually thought that he was a weak link before the game started but he turned up when his teammates needed him to give Croatia a crucial lead in the 109th minute.

It was a body blow for England who visibly sagged. They had nothing much to offer after that while Croatia looked dangerous every time they got near Pickford's penalty area.

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