World Cup 2018: England players came of age – Gareth Southgate

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England players “came of age” during the World Cup, said manager Gareth Southgate after their semi-final defeat by Croatia.

The Three Lions took an early lead via Kieran Trippier’s free-kick but the Croats battled back to win 2-1 in extra time and reach their first ever final.

“There’ll be a new benchmark and level of expectation,” said Southgate.

“To become a winning team there are hurdles you have to overcame – and we’ve surpassed many of them.”

He added: “Many of our players have come of age on the international stage.”

England had the second youngest squad at the World Cup and exceeded expectations to reach the last four for only the third time in their history – after 1966 and 1990.

The tournament was markedly different to Euro 2016, when England lost to Iceland in the last 16, and the 2014 World Cup where the side exited at the group stage.

They led for over an hour at the Luzhniki Stadium but Ivan Perisic equalised and then Mario Mandzukic scored a winner in the 109th minute.

“Tonight was a wonderful opportunity and you can’t guarantee they’ll come again,” said Southgate. “But equally we want to be a team who hit quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals. We’ve proved to ourselves and our country that’s possible.

“A lot of teams who go on to win trophies lose in quarter-finals or semi-finals first.

“At the moment we all feel the pain of defeat. I don’t think realistically we expected to be here. But once you’re here and played as well as we did, you want to take those opportunities in life. The dressing room is a difficult place at the moment.

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“I’m remarkably proud of the group of players – the reaction of the supporters compared to two years ago shows the country are proud of the way we played.”

England face Belgium in Saturday’s third place play-off, with Croatia playing France in Sunday’s final.

“It’s not a game any team wants to play in,” Southgate admitted.

England won the World Cup in 1966, while Belgium have never reached a final – and both sides have lost their only previous third place play-off ties.

“We have two days to prepare. We will want to give a performance of huge pride,” said Southgate.

“Every time we wear the shirt we want to play well and win. It’s going to be a really difficult task. We’ve made such strides with our supporters and public that we want to continue to do that.”

England captain Harry Kane told BBC Radio 5 live: “It’s been an amazing run but it hurts to lose, it really hurts. We wanted to go on and win it and we thought we had enough to go through but it wasn’t to be.

“In big games, small margins make the difference and they had a ball that fell their way at the end and he stuck it away. We played well at the start and in extra time but we missed a few chances to kill them off.

“There are a lot of positives to take from this tournament. It’s a big stepping stone from two years ago.”

Right-back Trippier, who scored the early goal but went off injured in extra time leaving his side a man down, spoke to BBC Radio 5 live after the match.

“Obviously we are feeling disappointed but we have grown as a team through the tournament and handled certain games and a penalty shootout well,” he said.

“You need to take chances in the semi-final of a World Cup and had we got that second goal, things would have been different. They had their spells in the game, which we knew would happen, but we are very proud of ourselves and all of the staff.

“It wasn’t meant to be. Tonight shows how far we have come as a team and a nation. We have connected with the fans and I hope they know how hard we tried to make them proud.”

England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford said: “It’s been a great run. We went ahead early and sometimes you might say it was too early but it just shows our character, we never stopped until the end.

“We hold our heads high and it shows how much we’ve come on as a unit and as a country. Look at the fans at the end, two years ago it wasn’t like that.

“I hope it’s just the start, this tournament, as long as we keep performing and keep playing the way we can. Tonight wasn’t our night but hopefully the future is bright.”

He added: “These are the times you learn from. We would like to get to the final, we would like to win it but as a person and as a team you learn more by not getting through and hopefully we come back stronger.”

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