England target World Cup final but gifted Croatia stand in the way
England will seek to reach their first World Cup final since 1966 when they lock horns with a talented Croatia team on Wednesday for the right to play France for the trophy.
France reached the final for the third time in their history on Tuesday when a second-half header from Samuel Umtiti gave the 1998 champions a 1-0 victory against Belgium in a tactical battle in Saint Petersburg
The win sent tens of thousands of French fans pouring onto the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris in scenes of joy last seen when France won the World Cup two decades ago.
France coach Didier Deschamps said he was delighted to have the chance to bury the pain of the Euro 2016 final, which his side lost on home soil to Portugal.
“Finals have to be won because we have still not got over the one we lost two years ago,” he said.
In England too, World Cup fever has been building with Gareth Southgate’s young team on the cusp of reaching the country’s first World Cup since they won it on home soil in 1966.
The country is expected to grind to a halt on Wednesday night as millions of fans watch the match.
“We can feel the energy and the support from home and it’s a very special feeling and a privilege for us,” Southgate said on Tuesday.
England are in the last four of a major tournament for the first time since Euro ‘96, when Southgate himself missed a penalty in a shootout defeat against Germany.
He said he was convinced that win or lose on Wednesday, his team had a bright future after decades of English under-achievement on the international stage.
“We’re going into a semi-final but it just seems like it’s the next step on the journey,” Southgate said.
“This team is nowhere near the level they’re going to be capable of, partly because of their age and partly because over the next few years, with us and with their clubs, they’re going to have more and more big-match experiences.
“So we’re excited about the future but we also want to make the most of the opportunity we have tomorrow.”
Croatia are wary of the threat posed by England captain Harry Kane, who is the tournament’s leading scorer with six goals so far.
The experienced Croatian team is led by arguably the player of the tournament so far, Luka Modric.
Defender Dejan Lovren dismissed suggestions that the team would be tired after extra time and two penalty shootouts in their last two match matches.
“I am perfectly ready and fit and I can say the same for my team-mates. We know what it takes and in such moments you forget any fatigue you may feel,” said the 29-year-old Liverpool player.
“This is maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It may repeat itself once, maybe never.”
It is the first time since 1998 that the nation of just over four million people have reached this stage, after they eliminated Russia in a penalty shootout at the weekend.
France impressively contained Belgium in a disciplined performance that was decided by another setpiece goal — a feature of this World Cup — as Barcelona defender Umtiti outjumped the defence to glance the ball past ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois.
It was a painful defeat for Belgium, foiled at the semi-final for the second time in their history, as the clock ticks on their so-called “golden generation” of players.
Captain Eden Hazard shone at times but Kevin De Bruyne was quiet and Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku was a shadow of the player he had been earlier in the tournament, even though Belgium enjoyed most of the possession.
In delirious scenes in Paris, fans let off fire crackers and released smoke flares — and predicted they would win a second World Cup.
“I was 18 years old in 1998, it was one of the most beautiful nights of my life.
We’ll repeat that this Sunday,” said one supporter, Sebastien, as the crowd chanted: “We’re in the final!
© Agence France-Presse