England’s dream of reaching a World Cup final for the first time in 52 years was snatched away in the dying minutes of extra time against Croatia on Thursday morning.
Mario Mandzukic ended England’s hopes with a lashing strike past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford at the start of the second period of extra time to give Croatia a 2-1 semi-final win at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
The sides were deadlocked at the end of regular time, despite England taking an early lead with a stunning goal in the first minutes of the game.
But after the gruelling and tightly-matched encounter, it is Croatia that will face France in the final on Monday (1am AEST).
World Cup-leading goal scorer Harry Kane said after the match the pain from World Cup semi-final defeat will hurt for a long time.
“It’s tough, we’re gutted,” he said.
“We worked so hard. The fans were amazing. It was a tough game, a 50-50 game. When we look back we will think there’s stuff we could have done better.
“We worked as hard as we could … it hurts, it hurts a lot and it will hurt for a long time. We have had a fantastic journey, further than we thought.”
A free kick saw England snatch the lead with their first opportunity at goal, after Real Madrid star Luka Modric fouled Dele Alli on the edge of the 18-yard box in the fifth minute.
Kieran Trippier added his name to British folklore with a emphatic strike, curving the free kick over the wall and into the back of the net.
Kane had a golden opportunity to make it 2-0 at the 30th minute when a dangerous ball across the Croatian goal opened up the Tottenham striker.
Kane’s attempt to squeeze his shot past Danijel Subasic was foiled when the ‘keeper dropped to his right and rebounded the ball back to Kane, who again failed to convert, crashing the ball into the near post.
England survived a tense finish when defender Harry Maguire brought down Dejan Lovren in the box, but to Croatian players’ dismay no plenty was awarded on the halftime whistle.
But England’s clean sheet, and advantage, was snuffed out in the 68th minute with a high-footed volley from Ivan Perisic in front of Kyle Walker.
England suddenly lost all composure and looked likely to concede another as nervous mistakes handed Perisic another opportunity at goal, which cannoned back off the far post.
Both sides tried to land the winning blow as play ticked into the final 10 minutes, with free-flowing chances at both ends.
The best of the lot fell to Perisic once more in the closing moments of the match, after English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford skimmed a punch away to the Croatian, but his shot ballooned over the crossbar.
Free-kick specialists England had one final goalscoring opportunity before extra time, with Trippier curling a ball to an unmarked Kane at the back post, only to scuff it wide.
John Stones was denied from a set piece in extra time as his flashing header was headed off the line by Sime Vrsaljko.
Kane said after the heartbreaking loss it was difficult to pinpoint what had gone wrong for the Three Lions.
“We created some good chances when we were 1-0 up. Maybe we dropped a little too deep, but we didn’t get enough pressure on the ball,” he said.
“There are a lot of ifs and buts. In these games it’s small margins.
“It’s hard to say [what went wrong]. There’s a lot we could have done better. They played well and made it difficult for us … it’s hard to put your finger on it.”