Croatia gear up for biggest game of all

Croatia began preparations for the first World Cup final in their history after they came from behind to crush England’s hopes in an enthralling contest.

The Balkan nation of just four million people will play France on Sunday after Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner in Wednesday’s semifinal prolonged England’s 52-year wait to reach a second World Cup final.

In beating Gareth Southgate’s young team, Croatia have surpassed the achievements of the heroes of 1998, when they reached the semifinals in France in their first World Cup as an independent nation.

Their players celebrated wildly in the Russian capital while in the Croatian capital Zagreb, tens of thousands of fans poured onto the streets and squares, singing, letting off flares and waving red-whiteand-blue flags.

Coach Zlatko Dalic’s side were clearly exhausted but they battled through extra time once again.

“This is fantastic,” Dalic said. “Two players played with halfa-leg, but it didn’t show.

“In extra time, nobody wanted to be substituted.

“This shows character and is what makes me proud. Nobody gave up.”

Croatia must recover quickly for Sunday’s showpiece – no easy feat after being taken to extra time for a third consecutive match, meaning they have played the equivalent of one match more than France.

“We prepared to get to the final and we want to play it.

“Going to extra time might be a problem along with the fact France have had an extra day to recover but there will be no excuses,” Dalic said.

England’s players slumped onto the turf at the final whistle, barely able to believe that their hopes had been dashed after reaching a first semifinal since 1990.

“We’re gutted,” Harry Kane said. His golden touch deserted him on Wednesday but he is still on course to finish as the tournament’s top goalscorer with six goals.

“It hurts, it hurts a lot. It’s going to hurt for a while, of course.

“It’s been a fantastic journey. We got further than anyone else thought we would have.”

Having led for more than an hour, the defeat will be difficult for England to digest, but their young team have won many admirers in Russia.

“I can’t ask for more from the players,” Southgate said.

“I think knockout football is about fine margins and when you have good spells against fine sides you need to take your chances.

“[On Wednesday night] we weren’t quite there, but we will learn from that.”

In London, an initial wave of elation turned to heartbreak as 30,000 beer-soaked fans in Hyde Park watched their team come up short.

About 30 million people were believed to have watched the match on TV in Britain.