Croatia reached their first World Cup semi-finals since 1998 as they overcame a dogged Russian team 4-3 on penalties. Penalties were needed to decide the results after a somewhat workmanlike game finished 2-2 after extra time.
Russia can hold their heads high after a World Cup campaign that saw them prove almost all of their critics wrong. Despite an overall lack of talent they were a true team and worked solidly and to the bitter end. In the end they didn’t have quite enough to beat Croatia, and the luck didn’t go their way in the shootout.
Russia started the quicker of the two, spurred on by the passionate home crowd. Croatia looked a little nervy to begin with but once they settled on the ball they were creating good positions without testing Akinfeev. After an exciting first 10 minutes, the game settled into a pattern of Russia sitting back, and Croatia probing.
Rebic made a couple of direct runs at the Russian box, but each time the end product was disappointing. The game came alive with one of the goals of the tournament. A perfectly weighted pass from Dzyuba fed Cheryshev 30 yards out. Cheryshev worked the ball into a yard of space and bent a shot into the top left corner from 25 yards. It was a sublime finish and sent the home crowd into raptures.
It took just 8 minutes for Croatia to equalize as the Russian defence fell asleep. Mandzukic breaking in down the left-hand side and crossing for Kramaric to head across the keeper from 8 yards. It was no more than the Croatians deserved, and going in level was about fair.
Croatia came out on top, with two early chances but neither seriously challenged Akinfeev. The game settled into a predictable pattern as Croatia had more of the ball, and Russia began to drop deeper and deeper. As things started to look bleak for the Russians, they took off the goalscorer Cheryshev and brought on Smolov to try and get a handle on the ball.
However, the Croatian’s continued to press. Perisic hitting the inside of the post as they continued to pile pressure on the Russian goal. Ultimately there was too little quality in the Croatian play, and there were too few quality chances and the game meandered it’s way to an extra period.
Both teams players seem out on their feet as we started the extra 30 minutes. Russia created the first good chance of extra-time as Smolov broke through, but his touch let him down and Croatia took over. As often seems to be the way Croatia’s very next attack resulted in a corner, from which they took the lead. A tame header from Vida somehow finding it’s way through a group of players and nestling in the net.
As Russia turned desperate they bought on Dzagoev who tore his hamstring earlier in the tournament. It was to prove a crucial decision as he put in a sublime delivery on a free-kick which was neatly headed home by Fernandes. The ex-Brazilian scoring his first goal for his adopted country at the most auspicious of moments. As players began dropping from tiredness the final whistle went, and we headed to the dreaded penalties.
Things started badly for the Russians with a truly woeful penalty from Smolov. He was let off the hook as Croatia’s second penalty, taken by Kovacic was well saved by Akinfeev. It lacked pace, but was near the corner and needed a good hand to keep it out. Up stepped Fernandes for Russia at 1-1, and put the ball inches wide of the left stick. It was a heartbreaking end for Fernandes who had scored the equalizer to take us to penalties.
Modric stepped up next for Croatia for what was to be the deciding moment. His penalty was well saved by Akinfeev, the ball crashing against the left post but somehow bounced across the goal and snuck inside the right post. It was heartbreaking for the Russians. The remaining four penalties, two for each side, were all scored, and Croatia advance.
What We Learned about Croatia
Croatia are really struggling to create much magic going forward. After a scintillating game against Argentina earlier in the tournament they have produced two very poor performances against Denmark and now Russia. The players looked genuinely exhausted at the end of extra-time. They will surely not be one hunder percent for the semi-final, but they have 3 days to recover and should be good enough to give it everything they have.
Russia are the team we all knew they were in terms of talent. But they proved once again that talent is not the only thing that matters on the football pitch. Their team-spirit, work ethic and passion have been a revelation and they will have won over a few critics with their gutsy play throughout the tournament.