MOSCOW (AP) — On both ends of the field, Sime Vrsaljko got the job done.
The Croatia defender set up the equalizer in the second half and then saved a likely goal by clearing a shot off the line in the first half of extra time.
Those two moments of excellence helped Croatia reach its first World Cup final following a 2-1 win over England on Wednesday, setting up a title match against France.
Vrsaljko, who plays for Atletico Madrid, had struggled to be ready for the match after playing in two previous extra-time matches, but he found the strength to lift his tired, battered team to a comeback win.
With Croatia trailing 1-0, Vrsaljko curled in the cross that Ivan Perisic volleyed into the net in the 68th minute. In extra time, he leaped high to block John Stones’ header, keeping Croatia in the game before Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal about 10 minutes later.
“Just a memorable night. We deserved to be in that final after such an amazing effort,” Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. “For us, it was impressive to watch a team such as the English, that is so strong physically, and they couldn’t keep up anymore, and we did have that energy.”
The Croats entered the match after winning their previous two games on penalty kicks, but they showed no sign of fatigue in the second half against England.
With three straight extra-time matches, Croatia has played the equivalent a full 90-minute match more than France has through six games in Russia. France also has an extra day of rest after beating Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday.
Besides scoring, Perisic also hit the post for the second straight game and set up Mandzukic’s winner, heading a poor clearance toward the Juventus striker to score.
The victory improves Croatia’s previous best showing at the World Cup, which ended in a 1998 semifinal loss to the host French.
“We have a good opportunity to give them something back for 20 years ago when they reached the final,” Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said. “Maybe it’s our time to revenge something but it’s a tough game and it will be difficult.”
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