Gareth Southgate believes England’s heartbroken players will emerge stronger from Wednesday night’s painful semi-final loss to Croatia.
Mario Mandzukic’s extra time goal completed Croatia’s excellent comeback as Zlatko Dalic’s men fought back from Kieran Trippier’s brilliant early free kick to book their place in the World Cup final on Sunday.
Southgate’s side have exceeded expectations here in Russia, nevertheless the ache of this loss will still come as a crushing blow to England’s shell-shocked players.
Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and Trippier were visibly distraught after the final whistle as Southgate went round consoling his forlorn stars.
But the England manager insists his team will benefit from the loss in the long-term.
‘It’s clear to everybody the progress that’s been made in terms of the level of performance and togetherness of the group,’ said Southgate.
‘There are a lot of things that have been hugely positive for us. Experiences we’ve come through, that an inexperienced team have to go through to get better.
‘This is a hugely different journey from two years ago (at Euro 2016), but to become a winning team, there are definitely hurdles we have to overcome.
‘We’ve come an incredibly long way in a short space of time. The whole thing is beyond where we thought we might go.
‘Tonight we weren’t quite there. They’re still physically maturing. Croatia have some hardened warriors whose understanding of big matches came to the fore.
‘But the team will be stronger for it. We were so close to what was unimaginable at the start.
‘By the end several players were out on their feet and we were down to 10. The reaction from the fans at the end shows you everything they’ve given.
‘Now we have a new benchmark, a new level of expectation, a new scenario. But many of these players have come of age on an international stage.’
Despite falling agonisingly short of the final, Southgate lavished praise on England’s World Cup heroes, adding:
‘It’s impossible to say anything to them to make them feel better at this moment of time. But when people look at the last 18 months, no one expected us to be in a semi-final of the World Cup.
‘For the players, I couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve given. The way they’ve represented their country has been exemplary.’