MOSCOW — For England, this was so much better than anyone could have possibly expected. But in the end, it wasn’t enough.
That’s the problem with progress. People will always want more and, having been within 22 minutes of playing in their first World Cup final since 1966, England must now prepare for a third-place playoff against Belgium in Saint Petersburg on Saturday, when they really wanted to be playing in Moscow 23 hours later.
Croatia, in the end, were simply too good and too streetwise in the semifinal and their 2-1 victory was deserved, despite England’s impressive start to the game.
But defeat still stings for Gareth Southgate and his overachieving players.
“Did we feel we would be in this position?” Southgate asked after the game. “Realistically, I don’t think any of us did.
“But when you get to this point and play as well as we did in the first half, you want to take those opportunities in life, so the dressing room is a very difficult place at the moment.”
England’s shortcomings, the fault lines that have consumed them long before the semifinal stage in previous tournaments, remain the same as ever. Southgate has done well to mask his team’s flaws and give them a renewed sense of confidence and identity, but the problems that cost them against Croatia were the same that almost handed victory to Colombia in the round of 16.
When England don’t have the ball, they struggle against teams who are comfortable with it. Few are as accomplished as Croatia, even when they…