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Persistent Croatia Comes Back on England to Secure First World Cup Final Berth

Croatia battled from a goal down in a third straight match to reach its first World Cup final, and it has a date Sunday vs. France after beating England on Mario Mandzukic's extra-time strike.

MOSCOW — Croatia mounted a furious comeback on England in their World Cup semifinal, as a second-half equalizer by Ivan Perisic and extra-time winner from Mario Mandzukic took down England 2-1 to earn a deserved spot in Sunday’s World Cup final against France.

For Croatia, which was forced into a third straight set of extra time, it will mark its first World Cup final ever and a rematch of the 1998 semifinal, which France won en route to the title.

It was looking good for England in its quest to reach its first final since winning it all in 1966, after Kieran Trippier scored on a fifth-minute free kick. Perisic equalized in the 68th minute, though, and then set up Mandzukic in the 109th minute for the eventual winner.

Here are my three thoughts on the game:

Croatia beat England to the ball when it counted most

How did Croatia come back from a 1-0 deficit? By establishing supremacy in the midfield during the second half and beating English defenders to the ball on both Croatia goals. Fractions of a second matter in soccer, and we saw why on Wednesday.

On Croatia’s first goal, Perisic barely beat Kyle Walker to the ball on his high kick to equalize. And then on the game-winner, Mandzukic took advantage of a switched-off John Stones to get to the second ball from Perisic before finishing past Jordan Pickford. You can’t switch off for even a moment in this game, especially if you’re a defender, or pro sharpshooters like Perisic and Mandzukic will make you pay in a heartbeat.

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Perisic was a man possessed, and Croatia is full of comeback kings

This Croatia team doesn’t know how to quit. They were down against Denmark in the round of 16 and advanced. They were down against Russia in the quarterfinals and advanced. And they were down against England in the semifinals and advanced. Against Russia, it was Luka Modric whose remarkable energy in extra time helped spur Croatia forward. And against England, that spark was Perisic. He was everywhere in the second half as Croatia searched for the equalizer, whether it was serving balls into the box or scoring the first Croatia goal or hitting the ball on Mandzukic’s second.

Croatia’s midfielders are so good that any of them can be the danger man on a given night. In this tournament that has meant Modric on the ball and scoring from distance. It has meant Ivan Rakitic finishing teams with the final penalty kick twice. And on Wednesday it meant Perisic putting an indelible stamp on this semifinal.

The World Cup of Set Pieces: How Teams Are Living Off Dead-Ball Plays

Croatia can't be sloppy on gifting set pieces

Heading into the game, we knew England had been the most dangerous team in the World Cup on set pieces, averaging nearly a goal per game on them, while Croatia had conceded three of its four World Cup goals on dead-ball plays. And sure enough, Trippier struck just five minutes into the game on a gorgeous direct free kick (that keeper Danijel Subasic perhaps could have done a bit more on to save).

The foul by Croatia that led to the free kick was totally unnecessary, too: Modric has been terrific in the World Cup, but his foul on Dele Alli was unnecessary. England nearly scored again in extra time on a set piece when Stones’ header was cleared off the line by Sime Vrsaljko. If Croatia is going to beat France in Sunday’s World Cup final, the Croatians will have to tighten up on their set-piece defending–and the plays that conceded the dead-ball situations. Keep in mind, France beat Belgium on a set piece and scored on another one against Uruguay.