Croatia ended Russia’s World Cup dream run and entered semi-finals in 20 years as Ivan Rakitic (pictured) held his nerve to score the winning goal in the 4-3 penalty shootout after the teams were tied 2-2 at the end of extra-time in Sochi on Saturday.
Croatia sighted victory in the Russian roulette after Fedor Smolov and Mario Fernandes missed the shootouts for the hosts. For Croatia, only Mateo Kovacic missed the target. Alan Dzagoe, Sergei Ignashevich and Daler Kuziaev scored for Russia while Marcelo Brozovic, Luca Modric and Domagoj Vida netted for Croatia. Rakitic, who was the last to take the spot kick, made no mistake.
Croatia will meet England in the semi-finals in Moscow on Wednesday.
Russians played gallantly and exited in style. They lost with dignity, pride and grace.
The first goal, a missile, by Denis Cheryshev was one of the best so far in the tournament. The equaliser for Croatia came from lapses by Russian defenders who gave Mario Mandžukić enough room to send a low cross to unmarked Andrej Kramarić who headed home past keeper Igor Akinfeev.
Croatia could have taken the lead in the 59th minute but Ivan Perisic’s low shot from close range hit the inside of the post and rolled harmlessly across for a goal kick.
In the dying moments of the game, Croatia’s keeper Danijel Subasic suffered a hamstring injury but he continued as extra time soon got underway.
Croats looked exhausted but they continued to resist Russia’s onslaught even as the wills of thousands of local fans assembled at Sochi stadium pressed the hosts forward.
In the first half of extra time, Croatia took the lead with a Domagoj Vida header from a Modric corner that sailed past a crowd of players into the bottom right corner. Akinfeev was helpless as he could not see the ball coming.
Croatia went on the defensive to maintain the lead and to not allow Russian forwards to further test the injured Subasic.
As time ticked away and the equaliser seemed elusive for Russia, team manager Stanislav Cherchesov started fretting and fuming.
Russia finally found the equaliser six minutes before the end of the second half of extra time through a powerful header by the tall Fernandes from Dzagoev’s free-kick. Penalty shootout looked inevitable at this stage.
Russia would have entered the semi-finals if Fedor Smolov and Mario Fernandes were able to covert the spot kicks. Smolov’s first kick was crucial to inspire others to be on target. Instead, he bungled and gave Croatia the advantage.
But the team ranked 70th by FIFA far exceeded the expectations and deserve praise for their hard work, resoluteness, team spirit and overall brilliance. They had a big dream and showed the world that one day they will achieve it.
The 120-minute encounter at Sochi proved that Croatia have some good players who can challenge any top team in the world and fight till the end.
England should keep this in mind when they face them in Moscow on Wednesday.