Football is not coming home. Not for another four years, anyway. England’s World Cup campaign came to a heartbreaking end in Moscow on Wednesday night, falling to Croatia 2-1 in extra-time.
The most disappointing thing for Gareth Southgate’s men, though, will not be the defeat, rather the manner in which England allowed Croatia back into the game.
Kieran Trippier’s glorious fifth-minute free-kick had England fans dreaming of their first final in 52 years, but it wasn’t to be.
For the first time in Russia, England looked tired and cautious. Up to this point, the Lions had thrilled with vibrant, imaginative attacking football. They emerged from a bruising last-16 clash with Colombia and kept Sweden at arm’s length in a surprisingly comfortable quarter-final.
Here, though, with the chance to meet France in the final dangling in front of their eyes, England looked increasingly fearful of losing as opposed to confident of winning.
Southgate’s side have galvanised a nation, made them believe and brought a genuine sense of fervour to watching an England World Cup campaign.
But international football at this elite level is a cut-throat business and England’s defenders, untested at this level it must be remembered, ultimately failed their toughest assignment.
Much has been made about Jordan Pickford’s flying saves and Harry Maguire’s crashing headers but, with England leading, the defence fell asleep and allowed Croatia back into it.
Kyle Walker, not a natural centre-back, was caught by Ivan Perišić, who nipped in front of the Manchester City defender to equalise.
But even the most ardent England fan will admit that it had been coming, slowly but surely, since half-time. England were comfortably superior in the first 45 minutes but were passive, not assertive, after the restart.
Prior to Perišić pouncing, England had been shaken by the rising Croatian pressure. Walker had nervously sliced a clearance out of play while one or two of Pickford’s passes failed to find their intended targets.
Then, it was a case of Perišić wanting to meet Sime Vrsaljko’s cross more than Walker.
Three minutes later, with England’s nerves shot, Perišić stuck Pickford’s post. They breathed a sigh of relief as Ante Rebić failed with the rebound.
But there was no relief when, with the prospect of another penalty shootout looming large, Mario Mandžukić capitalised on a lapse in John Stones’ concentration, slipping behind the defender before firing past Pickford to send Croatia into the final for the first time in their history.
There are, of course, so many positives from which England can assess and build. They have surpassed the achievements of the oft-mooted ‘Golden Generation’ of Lampard, Gerrard et al in reaching a semi-final.
Southgate has been the epitome of class and humility throughout and there is a belief that, with this particular group of players, he can maintain their newfound status as World Cup contenders.
Southgate is candid, though. When the dust settles and the tears are wiped away, there will come a time for this campaign’s post-mortem and Southgate will have no qualms in telling his young squad that the errors which allowed Croatia to turn the semi-final on its head are an opportunity to improve, not lament.
The other objective for Southgate must now be to find a way to bring the best out of his more creative players in open play. England’s goal, once again, was delivered from a dead-ball, albeit a perfectly-struck one. However, there can be no denying that England lacked that cutting edge in the final third from open play and, as Croatia got to grips with defending set-pieces, England’s influence faded.
These are harsh lessons but these are also Premier League footballers. Some have won league titles, lost league titles, played in Champions League finals. They know full well what a cruel mistress this sport can be.
Ultimately, it wasn’t to be England’s year. There are question marks over how they would have fared against France but the bottom line is that, leading up to the tournament, contesting in a semi-final remained the stuff of fantasy.
Football is not coming home. But England’s players are – and their fans have every reason to be proud of them.
They will return home. They will return home as heroes.