Tuesday 25 September 2018

Stars starting to align for Croatia as they hold nerve in another shoot-out

Russia 2 Croatia 2

Ivan Rakitic of Croatia celebrates scoring the winning penalty Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Ivan Rakitic of Croatia celebrates scoring the winning penalty Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

James Ducker

England will feel the stars are starting to align at this extraordinary World Cup, but so too will Croatia, who, having prevailed in the previous round against Denmark despite missing three penalties, have now eliminated the turbo-charged hosts in a similarly heart thumping shoot-out.

In one sense, England may be ­grateful to have avoided a semi-final meeting with Russia in Moscow - and what could have been one of the most politically charged games in history ­after the poisoning of a former KGB agent turned British spy and his ­daughter in Salisbury in March.

Mario Fernandes of Russia celebrates after scoring his team's second goal Photo: Getty
Mario Fernandes of Russia celebrates after scoring his team's second goal Photo: Getty

However, Croatia could well provide a tougher obstacle on Wednesday night, all the more so if their captain and metronome Luka Modric hits the sort of stride he did here from half-time onwards and ­fortune continues to favour Zlatko Dalic's side.

"We expect a very difficult, tight and demanding match," Modric said. "We watched their game against Sweden and we saw how good they are from dead-balls.

"We'll have to focus more on defending from set-pieces because we conceded from a set-piece (against Russia), so we'll have to improve that element of our game. We've already done some big things, but this team can do more."

Whatever the outcome, there is no danger of Gareth Southgate being ­diminished in the way Steve McClaren so cruelly was in the rain at Wembley in 2007.

Croatia players celebrate following their sides victory Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Croatia players celebrate following their sides victory Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

An umbrella may have shielded McClaren from the elements that ­evening, but not the ridicule that came his way after Croatia's 3-2 victory, which denied England a place at Euro 2008 and saw the manager infamously dubbed 'The Wally with the Brolly'.

Southgate and his squad will no doubt be drawing inspiration from more positive encounters with Croatia, such as a swashbuckling 4-2 victory at Euro 2004 when a teenage Wayne Rooney ran riot, or Theo ­Walcott's hat-trick in a 4-1 World Cup qualifying win in Zagreb in 2008.

England may dare to believe, but Croatia are coursing with confidence as well and their luck is most certainly in.

They must have thought they had done enough to win it in extra-time when defender Domagoj Vida headed them ahead in the 101st minute after Andrej Kramaric - once of Leicester City - had cancelled out ­another stunner from man of the ­moment Denis Cheryshev.

But Russia right-back Mario ­Fernandes had other ideas and, with just five minutes left, he headed home Alan Dzagoev's free-kick to spark joy among the home ­supporters and take a breathless game to penalties.

However, football can very quickly reduce a hero to zero and Fernandes would end up being the Russian fall guy.

After Fedor Smolov had missed ­Russia's first penalty with an attempted panenka, Marcelo Brozovic scored, but there was hope again for the hosts when Mateo Kovacic missed for ­Croatia after Dzagoev scored.

Step forward Fernandes. He looked petrified, white as a sheet, and that fear was reflected in the way he dragged his penalty horribly wide.

Croatia must have known that this was their day when Modric's penalty was tipped on to the inside of a post by Igor Akinfeev only to fly across the net and nestle in the other side.

For a moment, the Real Madrid midfielder must have thought he had missed only to eventually wheel away in celebration, a fitting end to a fine performance.

Vida scored his spot-kick either side of Sergey Ignashevich and Daler Kuzyaev finding the net, leaving Ivan Rakitic with the opportunity to win it - as he had against Denmark.

Once again the Barcelona midfielder held his nerve; once again he sent the goalkeeper the wrong way. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport