The Croatian Dream Continues, as England Falters

Wednesday semifinal started auspiciously for the Three Lions. An early free kick goal from surprising standout Kieran Trippier with just five minutes gone gave the impression football might actually be coming home. 

For the next half hour and some change, the Croatians looked shell-shocked. But to be fair, they've been down early before--giving up a goal to Denmark in the first minute of their Round of 16 match. 

But on the stroke of halftime, it seemed the Croatians had settled. The tiny nation may just have had enough fight left to challenge England's youthful side. 

After not putting up much of a rebuttal in the first 45, the Luca Modric led side hammered England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with seven shots in the first 15 minutes of the second half. 

Just past the hour mark, Ivan Perišić took a late run into the box and got his boot, above a diving Kyle Walker, to Šime Vrsaljko's cross from the right side. Pickford was helpless to prevent the goal.

And facing a bit of shell-shock themselves, the England side almost conceded a second a few minutes later. Perišic's shot hit the inside of the post and Ante Rebic's rebound fell comfortably right into the hands of a panicked Pickford.

Ninety minutes wouldn't be enough, however. And for the third time in three games Croatia would have to play an extra 30 minutes. Curiously, both teams had most of their subs remaining--Croatia with all four and England three. Entering extra time, teams are allowed a fourth substitute.

The first 15 almost came and went without much fan fare. But, in the final minute of the first extra period, Mario Mandžukić latched on to a cross at the near post with pressure from Pickford forcing his shot wide.

The dagger came just three minutes into the second frame. A headed ball from the left by Perišic combined with a momentary switch off by England's defense, allowed Mandžukic to sneak in and finish first time past the diving keeper from Everton. 

England had to finish down a man as Kieren Trippier was helped off with a groin injury. But even if he had stayed on, able to finish, it seemed a bridge too far. The Croatians had outlasted an England side that had so inspired the country and even the rest of the globe. 

As the Croatians celebrated and the Three Lions players stood dejected, one thing was certain England will be back.

The core of this team will eventually bring football home. And the rest of Europe and the World should be very afraid. 

 

Belgium Makes Their Case

If there ever was a favorite dark horse to win this summer's edition of the World Cup, it'd have to be Belgium.

Coming in the tournament, pundits were picking all the usual suspects as to lift the trophy on July 15th--Brazil, Germany, Argentina, France, Spain. Rarely, and almost always as an after thought, a few would mention Belgium. 

But as each of the teams finish their second first round game and we've seen several of the favored sides struggle to impress, Belgium has been the one side that stands clearly above the rest. In both of their games thus far, they've thoroughly dominated their opponents. They left no doubt of their intentions. 

Sure, you'd be right to point out that they're even on points and goal differential with England, yet England's struggle bus performance against Tunisia in their first game left many unanswered questions. Some were answered in England's 6-1 victory over an out-of-their-depth Panama side. John Stones and Harry Kane stepped into the breech and led the team to victory, but how will they respond when faced with a far superior and more complete Belgium. 

Both sides have much to prove, but I give the nod to the Roberto Martinez coached side. They not only have an in form striker in Romelu Lukaku, but they also have two creative midfield players that are forces to be reckoned with--Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard. I'm not certain the Three Lions will be able to cope with, much less contain, all three.

My bet's on a goal fest, with Belgium winning 3-2.