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England players came of age – Southgate

Mandzukic nets extra-time winner against England

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.

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

“We’ve proved to ourselves and our country that’s possible.

“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.

“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-offs.

“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. Over the next 24 hours we have to get everyone back mentally to where we want them. That’s the challenge.

“The group have huge pride in their performances. We’ve made such strides with our supporters and public that we want to continue to do that.”

England captain Harry Kane told ITV: “We know we’ve done everyone proud and we wanted to win it. It hurts. We can be up here.

“The next step is to go one further. We want more. We’re gutted.”

He added: “We have to dust ourselves down, be proud of what we’ve done and go again in a couple of years.

“This is a great foundation we have built with the gaffer [Gareth Southgate], we are proud of what we have achieved but we wanted more and are sad we couldn’t give our fans a final.”

More to follow.

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