The last of the quarter-finals sees hosts Russia take on Croatia in probably the least sexy of the ties. Russia have shocked everyone by getting this far, having been called the worst team ever to host the World Cup Finals. Croatia, on the other hand, were expected to make the knock-out stages, although winning their group raised expectations considerably.
Russia So Far
Having been called the worst team ever to host the world cup finals meant Russia were delighted to be drawn in the weakest group in the tournment. They opened with a 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia who were woeful defensively. That was followed up with another comfortable win, 3-1 over Egypt. Their final group game against Uruguay proved much harder as they were quickly behind to much stronger opposition. Forced to attack more, Uruguay picked them apart and ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. Being reduced ot 10 men didn’t help Russia’s cause, but they were easily second best on the day.
In the last-16 everyone expected them to be ripped to shreds by Spain. By they held their formation well and stuck to their jobs with great discipline and work rate. While Spain moved the ball too slowly and attacked too little, Russia deserves credit for holding their nerve and working as hard as they did for 120 minutes. A penalty shootout win moved them into the quarters.
Croatia So Far
Croatia made it to the finals by defeating Greece in the playoffs, but their build-up had been patchy. Defeats to Brazil and Peru may have had them feeling a little nervous about being in a group with Argentina. Their opening game was a comfortable 2-0 win over Nigeria. Always in control of the game it was a good way to play themselves into the tournament. Next up were group favourites Argentina who were in need of a win having drawn their opener. However, Croatia were in no mood to accommodate them as they put together one of the most impressive games of the tournament to dismantle Argentina 3-0.
Croatia completed the group stages with a 2-1 win over Iceland. They looked a little nervous at times, but their extra class shone through in the end. In the last-16 they played a very well orgniased Denmark team and while they dominated most of the game they struggled to break them down. They almost scored the winner in the dying minutes of extra-time only to be denied by a professional foul. However, they completed the job on penalties to advance to the quarter-finals.
What To Expect
The pattern for this game was laid down by Russia in their last-16 game against Spain. They will sit deep, invite pressure, and look to hit Croatia on the break. Russia have set themselves up as hard to beat against both Uruguay and Spain. The only games where this hasn’t happened were against the lesser teams. Russia know their best hope of winning this game is to keep it tight, and probably go all the way to penalties again.
Croatia will have watched the Russia and Spain game, and will know what to expect. Spain were far too tiki-taka throughout that game. Too much possession was spent batting the ball around in the midfield and back to the defenders. The Russians showed very little interest in coming out, and Spain should’ve got some balls in the box and run at them with pace.
Croatia will not make the same mistakes. They will be much more direct, and put pressure on the Russian defence in and around their own box. In their own half, Croatia have proven equally proficient, allowing just 2 goals in their four games.
Lazy Fan Prediction: Russia 1-3 Croatia. Russia’s world cup surprises will finally come to an end as Croatia will become the team to unlock their back-line consistently.