Croatia yet again showed their magnificent resilience to come from behind and beat England 2-1 on Wednesday as Mario Mandzukic's extra-time goal sent them into their first World Cup final and a possible revenge mission against France.
For the third successive knockout game the Croats trailed, this time to Kieran Trippier's fifth-minute free kick, but they fought back once more to force extra time.
Ivan Perisic levelled after 68 minutes and, having got past Denmark and Russia on penalties, Croatia rolled up their sleeves for another extra period.
This time they did not need the shootout as, seemingly gaining in energy when they should have been on their knees, they took charge and won it when Mandzukic struck with a well-taken low shot in the 109th minute.
"This tournament will be won by a team with character. We were 1-0 down in three games in a row," Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said.
"For Croatian football and the country this is history being written - I can't think of a smaller country to reach the final."
Croatia become the 13th team to contest the final and the first new finalists since Spain in 2010.
Since their dream run to the last four in 1998, their first tournament as an independent nation, Croatia have failed to get past the group stage, with every subsequent failing team being compared unfavourably with the heroes of France.
This side, however, have gone one better and will get the chance to avenge the defeat of 20 years ago when they face the French on Sunday at the Luzhniki Stadium.
"This has been the topic of discussion the past 20 years," Dalic said. "Maybe that game has historical significance maybe, the dear Lord is giving us the chance to settle a score."
That they will have that chance is due in part to their fitness, attitude and finishing quality but also to England's failure to take full advantage of a totally dominant first half.
England, hoping for a first final appearance since winning their sole trophy in 1966, had got off to a flying start when Trippier curled a superb free kick into the top corner and they looked assured, relishing the space they were being given.
But Harry Kane shot weakly at Danijel Subasic and forced the rebound against a post, Raheem Sterling again failed to turn promise into substance and Jesse Lingard curled a golden chance wide.
Croatia had been desperately poor, a shadow of the team who carved Argentina apart in the group stage, but started to get a foothold in the game as the match rolled past the hour mark and Luka Modric's influence grew.
England paid the price for those misses when Perisic showed great determination to get in front of Kyle Walker to meet a Sime Vrsaljko cross and though his boot was high and he threw an anxious glance at the referee, Walker was stooping and there were few complaints.
Perisic should have added another when given a great shooting chance but he cannoned the ball against a post as England's defence began to lose shape.
It was a different game from then on, with Croatia suddenly playing with accuracy and purpose as England lost momentum and poise, though an off-colour Kane missed a chance to win it in stoppage time when he headed wide from a free kick.
England initially regrouped well in extra time with Marcus Rashford introducing some pace and Croatia were grateful for Vrsaljko's goalline clearance of a John Stones header.
But it was Croatia who struck the killer blow when Perisic won a header on the edge of the box, England lost concentration and the ball dropped for Mandzukic, whose firm low finish beat Jordan Pickford.
"This is a miracle. Only great teams can be as brave as we were and fight back from a goal down against teams like England," Mandzukic said.
England face a third-place playoff with Belgium on Saturday having exceeded many people's expectations but aware that they let what might prove the be the best chance in a generation to end what is now 52 years of hurt. "Nobody expected us to be in the semi-final but once we were here we really thought we could reach the final," coach Gareth Southgate said.7
"When you have spells, you have to make them count. We probably needed that second goal. We should not forget the opportunity we had."
Lions fans sobbed
Meanwhile, some England soccer fans sobbed while others looked to the future with confidence after their once improbable dreams of a first World Cup final in more than 50 years were dashed.
"We blew our chances," 17-year-old Josh Ogunde said after watching the 2-1 semi-final defeat with friends near Trafalgar Square in central London as the disappointed crowds streamed home.
"I just believe we can come back another time, and I hope before I die I see England win the World Cup," Ogunde said.
Matt Reece, 25, who works in marketing, said England had far outperformed the low expectations of them when the tournament began.
But he lamented England's failure to take full advantage of what appeared an unusually easy route to the final, avoiding most of the heavyweight teams in Russia.
"They've been unbelievable the whole tournament but at the end of the day, it was our best chance ever and we haven’t taken it," Reece said.
After watching their team stumble at major tournaments for decades, often falling to much smaller nations, England supporters had begun to think that 2018 might be a different story.
If they had beaten Croatia, England would have reached only their second World Cup final. In their other appearance, in 1966, in London, they entered popular folklore by beating West Germany, an achievement that many fans have long thought they would never see again.
Despite taking the lead early in the first half on Wednesday, England suffered the familiar story of World Cup heartbreak as Croatia equalised in the second half and then claimed the winner in the second period of extra time.
In Moscow, some England fans emerged from the Luzhniki Stadium in tears and being hugged by others while jubilant Croatian supporters celebrated around them.
"It was a good game. Croatia deserved to win," Mark Burcher, 50, said. Asked how far he thought the still young England team could progress in the next World Cup, he said: "This far, if not the final."
"A couple of weeks ago, I would have taken this result,” said one man in a red England shirt who declined to give his name. "It's something to have got this far."
But Raj Singh, a Canadian who supports England because he has relatives in Britain, said the team may have passed up their best opportunity in a lifetime to reach a World Cup final.
"No way will they have such an easy route next time. Look at the other teams they’ll be up against. France are a young team, Brazil are young," he said.
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