Saturday 21 July 2018

Russia's dream dies but battle will take heavy toll on Croatia

Russia 2 Croatia 2 (After extra time): Croatia won 4-3 on penalties

Croatia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout. Photo: Christian Hartmann/Reuters
Croatia players celebrate winning the penalty shootout. Photo: Christian Hartmann/Reuters
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Crotia sealed a place in the World Cup semi-finals after a dramatic penalty shoot-out win in Sochi last night, but the damage inflicted in the winners of this draining quarter-final must have played into the hands of their next opponents, England.

Amid curious scenes in a shambolic shoot-out, jaded Russian and Croatian players dragged their weary limbs up to the penalty spot for their date with destiny, with Fedor Smolov and Mario Fernandes serving up horrible penalties for the hosts as their World Cup fantasy died.

Ivan Rakitic fired the decisive spot-kick to seal a 4-3 shoot-out win and end the agony for both sides. Now we wait to see the after effects both emotionally and physically on the winners ahead of their clash with England.

Croatia appeared to have won the game in extra time as battle-hardened Besiktas defender Domagoj Vida emerged as their unlikely hero with a 110th minute goal.

Croatia’s Dejan Lovren and Luka Modric celebrate their penalties victory over Russia last night. Photo: Reuters
Croatia’s Dejan Lovren and Luka Modric celebrate their penalties victory over Russia last night. Photo: Reuters

Left unmarked in the box as jaded Russian defenders finally allowed their guard to drop, the celebrations that followed Vida's goal suggested Croatia believed that they had conjured up their winning moment.

With both sets of players clearly drained of energy and the final gasps of effort being poured into a game that was the most important most on the pitch will ever have played, Mario Fernandes leapt highest in the box to draw the teams level and send this stadium into a state of incredible ecstasy.

There can be nothing left in this World Cup to surprise as while this was not a match that will be remembered as a classic, it still had some magical moments, with the opening goal arguably the best we have seen in this month-long festival of footballing delight.

Denis Cheryshev's strike 31 minutes into a tense first half was equalised by Andrej Kramaric's glancing heading six minutes before the break, yet those two moments aside, this was a game lacking in magic for lengthy periods.

In a World Cup that will be remembered for its shocks, hosts Russia dared to believe there were still some unexpected twists in the narrative as they took on a fancied Croatia in Sochi.

With a Russian nation grinding to a halt for a match billed as the biggest ever played by the national team on home soil, expectation had to be weighing heavily on the shoulders of coach Stanislav Cherchesov and his players as kick-off approached.

Croatia's Ivan Rakitic celebrates after scoring the winning penalty during the shootout with Russia. Photo: Reuters
Croatia's Ivan Rakitic celebrates after scoring the winning penalty during the shootout with Russia. Photo: Reuters

Croatia were the side tipped by most observers to emerge from the relatively weak bottom half of the World Cup draw and seal a place in the final and as the side that destroyed Lionel Messi and Argentina in the group stages took a vice like grip on possession in the opening half an hour, this game began in predictable fashion.

Croatia's midfield duo of Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric and Barcelona's Rakitic were always likely to have too much class for their Russian midfield rivals, yet this game was to have a twist in its tale just over half an hour into proceedings.

With Modric and Rakitic appearing to lose concentration as they found themselves in close proximity to each other and too close to the Croatian backline, Russia's Artem Dzyuba made the attacking break that would lead to the opening goal.

The composure Denis Cheryshev displayed as he manoeuvred himself into a shooting position and then unleashed a stunning curling shot could only be admired, with Croatia keeper Danijel Subasic a little too far off his line to keep out the fizzing effort.

Cheryshev's stunning strike will go down as one of the finest goals scored at this wondrously watchable World Cup and for the eight minutes that followed, Russia's improbable progress in their own competition looked set to have more chapters added.

Yet for all the romance of this unlikely Russian success story, the weak spots in Cherchesov's side have been exposed on a few occasions and they were undone as Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic was given far too much space to run down the left flank and into the Russian danger zone before picking out a perfect cross that was converted by Andrej Kramaric.

Croatia's Luka Modric in action with Russia's Yury Gazinsky. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
Croatia's Luka Modric in action with Russia's Yury Gazinsky. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Up to that point, this had been a below par Croatian performance, but Russia made the mistake of giving top quality players too much time and space to work their magic and they paid the inevitable price.

Despite the release of optimism across the Russian football family, Cherchesov's side had every right to be content with their first half efforts as their hard-working endeavour has diluted much of Croatia's attacking threat.

Modric and Rakitic struggling to influence the game as Croatia would have wanted, yet the energy levels being poured into this game by Russia appeared to take its toll as the second half got underway.

With their defensive line slipping deeper as Croatia began to press home their superiority with increasing relish, Ivan Perisic came closest to finding the winning goal in normal time as his effort beat Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev, struck the inside of the post and flew across the line before finding a resting place.

There was to be no more goals until the dramatic period of extra time and with both sets of players struggling to get over the finishing line as they faded physically, the biggest winners in this game appeared to be waiting semi-finalists England.

Gareth Southgate's squad will watch a replay of this game in the days before their nation's first World Cup semi-final in 28 years and the sight of Croatian players cramping in worrying numbers in the final stages can only fill them with optimism.

Croatia's Mario Mandzukic in action with Russia's Mario Fernandes. Photo: Reuters
Croatia's Mario Mandzukic in action with Russia's Mario Fernandes. Photo: Reuters

England's comfortable win against Sweden combined with Croatia's nerve jangling win last night may well mean Southgate's side head into the semi-final as warm favourites.

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