Last stop for the host country. Russia leave the competition in the hands of the Croatians, who survived the second penalty battle in a row. 120 minutes were not enough to determine the outcome of the last World Cup Quarter Final, which ultimately promoted coach Zlatko Dalic’s black-dressed team. Mistakes by Fedor Smolov and Mario Fernandes from the penalty spot proved fatal to Stanislav Cherchesov’s side, but Russia exited the tournament with their heads held high after blocking Croatia on a 2-2 score.
The Vatreni thus made it to the Top 4, an achievement already reached in 1998, but struggled more than expected in their two knock-out games so far. Fatigue suffered during the matches with Denmark and Russia might take its toll when Croatia faces England on Wednesday for their Semi Final. The Brits had gotten rid of Sweden quite easily earlier in the day. Luka Modric and his teammates, on the other hand, ended last night’s battle in pieces, with Sime Vrsaljko forced to leave the pitch during extra time, and Mario Mandzukic, as well as heroic goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, forced to stay despite their calf injuries, as Dalic had no changes left.
The Croatian coach should indeed thank FIFA for introducing the possibility for a 4th substitution during extra time. That enabled him to at least limit the damage and pull it out until the 120th minute, when a stone cold Ivan Rakitic wrapped his side’s qualification for the second time in a row scoring the last, decisive penalty.
Much to the joy of his president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who stole the stage of the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi from the VIP box, with her white-and-red checkered t-shirt (by the way, why are Croatian players not wearing that?) and her handshake exchanges with Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev each time one of the teams scored. All under the eye of a delighted FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who must be rubbing his hands at a World Cup that has been objectively perfect so far.
The first handshake was for Medvedev however, prompted by a sensational goal by Denis Cheryshev. The Villarreal midfielder retook his spot in the lineup after starting the match with Spain from the bench, and did make his presence noticed with an absolute screamer in the 31st minute, favored by a flank play by Artem Dzyuba. Subasic could only look as the ball swished past him to give the Russians a surprising lead.
But Croatia are hard to die, and balance was promptly re-established less than ten minutes later, with Andrej Kramaric converting with a header a cross from the left by Mario Mandzukic, and finalizing one of the rare fast breaks from the Croatians – who are rather used to build their game slowly. Teams were tired, the fifth game in three weeks made itself heard in the players’ legs, as it usually happens during the latest stages of modern World Cups, and scoring chances on both sides started to dwindle.
Ivan Perisic hit the interior post of Igor Akinfeev’s goal in the 59th minute after a mess-up by the Russian defense, chilling the blood of the 44000 home supporters, and stopping for a moment their roaring Rossiya! Rossiya! chant. Then, he left room to his teammate at Inter Ivan Brozovic, as Dalic pulled him out. On the Russian side, substitute Aleksandr Erokhin sent a header out of a target from a favorable position, well-served with a cross by Mario Fernandes – another impressive performance for the right back of Brazilian origin, despite his missed penalty.
The Russian coach substituted both Cheryshev and Dzyuba, pulling out once again those who had looked the most dangerous from his team. Dzyuba didn’t like it that much, one could say, but the Arsenal Tula’s striker was indeed exhausted.
The last emotion in regular times was provided by Croatian goalkeeper Subasic, who injured himself to his hamstring with two minutes to go, in an attempt to avoid a corner kick. The hero of the penalty battle with Denmark courageously remained on the pitch, and in the 93rd minute also parried a back a dangerous shot from the right.
Entering extra times, a scene already seen by both sides only a few days earlier. Mario Manduzkic was literally limping but had to hold on, as Dalic had to use his additional substitution to pull out defender Sime Vrsaljko. Subasic touched his hamstring whenever he was called to action, still he resisted. Croatia’s tenacity eventually bore fruit, assuming the form of a powerful header by center back Domagoj Vida. Vedran Corluka (Vrsaljko’s substitute…) let the ball slide past him, fooling the Russian defense, and the Vatreni found themselves ahead in the 100th minute.
But Stanislav Cerchesov still didn’t want to raise white flag. The mustached Russian coach played his last card resorting to Alan Dzagoev, then was seen raising his hands at the stands to call for more support. Mario Fernandes appeared to have listened to him, as he lifted off to convert a free kick from Dzagoev himself in the 113th minute, and set the score to the final 2-2 to make the Fisht Olympic Stadium literally explode. Mandzukic crashed down, giving the impression he wouldn’t even have been able to shoot his penalty, had it come to that.
But From the penalty kick spot, Fedor Smolov got the bad idea of trying a Panenka (a cucchiaio, Italians would say), which Subasic pushed back, then Mario Fernandes shot his penalty out of target, passing from glory to despair in the space of 15 minutes. Igor Akinfeev saved the shot by Mateo Kovacic, and went close to also stop the one by Luka Modric, but it was no use. Croatia’s victory had the spirited eyes of Real Madrid’s playmaker, and the ice-cold ones of last shooter Ivan Rakitic, who brought his side back to the sweet memories of 1998.
July 7, 2018 – World Cup Quarter Finals
RUSSIA-CROATIA 2-2 after extra time; 3-4 after penalties
SCORERS: 31′ Cheryshev (R), 39′ Kramaric (C), 100′ Vida (C), 113′ Fernandes (R)
PENALTY SEQUENCE: Smolov (R) saved,Brozovic (C) goal, Dzagoev (R) goal, Kovacic (C) saved, Fernandes (R) out, Modric (C) goal, Ignashevich (R) goal, Vida (C) goal; Kuziaev (R) goal, Rakitic (C) goal
|RUSSIA (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev; Fernandes, Kutepov, S. Ignashevich, Kudryashov; Zobnin, Kuziaev; Samedov (53′ Erokhin), Golovin (56′ Dzagoev), Cheryshev (66′ Smolov); Dzyuba (79′ Gazinsky) (Gabulov, Lunev, Smolnikov, Granata, Semenov, Al. Miranchuk, An. Miranchuk, Zhirkov) Coach: Cherchesov|
|CROATIA (4-2-3-1): Subasic; Vrsaljko (95′ Corluka), Lovren, Vida, Strinic (73′ Pivaric); Rakitic, Modric; Rebic, Kramaric (88′ Kovacic), Perisic (62′ Brozovic); Mandzukic (Kalinic, Livakovic, Jedvaj, Caleta-Car, Bradaric, Pjaca, Badelj) Coach: Dalic|
REFEREE: Ricci (Brazil)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Gazinsky (R), Lovren, Strinic, Vida, Pivaric (C)
Click below to relive some of Russia and Croatia’s previous games at World Cup 2018:
Russia-Saudi Arabia 5-0
Spain-Russia 1-1; 3-4 on penalties
Croatia-Denmark 1-1; 3-2 on penalties