Opportunity knocked: England spoils golden chance in Russia
Shaun Botterill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The Three Lions have nobody to blame but themselves.

Blessed with a fortuitous draw and benign happenstances which rarely provide the kind of opportunities that England had at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, manager Gareth Southgate's lot wilted when it mattered most.

Croatia was supposed to be listless after going the distance in successive knockout clashes against Denmark and Russia, while England was typified as emboldened by its first-ever penalty victory in the World Cup and talk of the championship "coming home." This was supposed to be a different England side.

The Balkan outfit wasn't exactly good in the opening half Wednesday in Moscow. Three chances created and marginally better possession numbers papered over the cracks of a side that appeared glaringly off the pace.

Combine that with England's brilliant goal in the fifth minute, courtesy of Kieran Trippier's peach of a right foot, and a pair of quality opportunities for Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard, and the Three Lions should've had the result done and dusted by the interval.

Boasting arguably the tournament's best midfield, Croatia's middle-of-the-park merchants weren't the standout performers at Luzhniki Stadium. Luka Modric appeared knackered before improving after the break, Ivan Rakitic paired a scant effort at Jordan Pickford's goal with a lone key pass, and Marcelo Brozovic missed a close-range chance in the second half. Instead, it was Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic who exploited wide spaces and operated well with a pair of full-backs not known for attacking contributions.

It was hardly a daunting task to defend, but when Dele Alli gifted Sime Vrsaljko heaps of space on the right side, the Atletico Madrid defender fired a pin-point cross that Perisic guided beyond Pickford. Instead of responding, the likes of Lingard, Kane, and Alli shrunk. Those three players combined for zero shots on target, and England had just a lone effort to Croatia's seven. That return is nowhere near good enough. By the time Perisic's header on the edge of the penalty area found a streaking Mario Mandzukic for the match winner, England had turned off.

Should this England side - the youngest one in the tournament - be disappointed with Wednesday's result? Based on the way Southgate's lot performed against a ragged Croatia side following a slew of fortuitous breaks: yes. However, there's little shame in reaching the last four of a major tournament against all expectations. Consider that were it not for an enterprising journo from the Telegraph, England could've been bossed in Russia by Sam Allardyce, a renowned tactical misfit.

It's not all doom and gloom. Kane, Lingard, Dele, Pickford, Trippier, John Stones, and Raheem Sterling are all 24 years old or younger, and England's youths won the U-20 World Cup last summer in Poland.

Even so, there's no way to overlook spoiled chances. The opportunities England was presented with in Russia are a scarce commodity.

Debutant Panama and a lifeless Tunisia offered little opposition in the group stage, and after Southgate's B-team lost to Belgium to guarantee passage to an almost-comical side of the bracket, fortune continued to follow the Three Lions. James Rodriguez didn't play for Colombia in the last-16 clash, and had Jose Pekerman's men not played the first 80 minutes looking to unsettle a young England side with robust tackles and petulance, Los Cafeteros could've snatched a favourable result. Then it was a Sweden side in the quarters that rarely looked like scoring.

When the Three Lions and their fervent supporters look back at the 2018 World Cup, all regrets should be tethered to the opportunities wasted.

Opportunity knocked: England spoils golden chance in Russia
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