Croatia recovered from the concession of World Cup 2018’s quickest goal to draw 1-1 with Denmark at the end of extra time and then reach the quarter-finals on penalties through Ivan Rakitic’s clincher.
Danish centre-back Mathias Jorgensen wrote his name into the record books within a minute when his low shot inside a packed penalty box squeezed in. But Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic scuffed home on four minutes after the ball fortuitously rebounded off Denmark midfielder Andreas Christensen’s face.
Few chances of note then followed at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium as the promise from an exciting first half quickly ebbed away. Penalties seemed a given until Luka Modric picked a pass of rare genius and Mathias Jorgensen felled forward Ante Rebic, but – watched on by legendary father Peter – goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel saved the former-mentioned’s effort from 12 yards on 116 minutes.
The shootout witnessed a pair of penalty misses apiece, before Nicolai Jorgensen’s third errant effort for the Danes was decisively punished by Rakitic.
Croatia’s reward is a last-eight tie against hosts Russia.
GLOVES OFF IN THE BIG FIGHT
This round-of-16 contest on the Volga River had been billed as a showcase for two of Europe’s premier playmakers, in Croatia’s Modric and Denmark’s Christian Eriksen.
Instead, the goalkeepers would define a match in which gripping entertainment sandwiched a dire filling.
Leicester City’s Schmeichel moved onto a respectable 20 penalty saves throughout his career, outside of shootouts, when he brilliantly repelled Modric’s extra-time punt. The 31-year-old had tweeted about tiresome comparisons being made to his lionized father in the build-up, but the apple doesn’t appear to have fallen far from the tree.
Monaco’s Danijel Subasic has won close to a half-century of caps without ever coming to the fore. Headlines are usually dominated by the likes of Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic.
This script was flipped on Sunday. The mood was set when his fingertips pushed Eriksen’s opener in the shootout onto the post.
Lasse Schone and – decisively – Nicolai Jorgensen would then face similar rejection.
2 - This was only the second ever day in which two World Cup games were both decided by a penalty shootout – the other was on June 21st 1986 (France v Brazil and Mexico v Germany). Nerve. #CRODEN #CRO #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/kFnJXPEYIc— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 1, 2018
DANES GO FOR IT… THEN STOP
Denmark boss Age Hareide promised a greater attacking edge, but even he would have been amazed at how soon his prediction came true.
Just 57 seconds were on the clock when the ball fell to Huddersfield Town centre-back Mathias Jorgensen inside a packed penalty box. An instinctive low effort then squirmed past two lunging defenders and under unsighted goalkeeper Danijel Subasic for this World Cup’s quickest goal.
The fuse had been lit for ‘Danish Dynamite’ in record time. It would be a slow burner from that point, with Eriksen’s deployment providing bafflement.
To a degree, Hareide was good as his word. Only five attempts on goal were made by them in the dour Group C-stalemate against France – they reached this mark before 65 minutes on Sunday.
But the second half was, otherwise, a distinct disappointment.
Denmark favoured direct football over refined craftsmanship, the formation being tweaked to a 4-4-1-1. Attrition reigned over inspiration.
The ball was repeatedly pumped downed the channels. Confusingly, this meant Christian Eriksen – a playmaker involved in 18 goals during his last 16 caps – was a periphery figure.
By the end of normal time, the 26-year-old’s 48 touches was his nation’s joint-sixth best with Ipswich Town defender Jonas Knudsen.
No-one else could conjure an assist to rival his from Peru, or the stupendous volley that followed against Australia.
Hareide’s vision to gain a second-ever quarter-final berth came with a serious flaw.
00:57 - Mathias Jørgensen's goal was the quickest in a World Cup game since June 2014, when Clint Dempsey scored against Ghana after 29 seconds. Lightning. #CRODEN #DEN #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/3ir7CIw62d— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 1, 2018
DALIC ENGINEERS A DULL DISPLAY
Croatia flew through Group D in record fashion, winning all three matches for the first time in their history.
The final 2-1 victory against Iceland came despite nine changes being made. This appeared a cunning move at the time.
Dreams grew that a rested XI would stand greater chance in the knockouts of repeating 1998’s memorable march to the semi-finals.
Yet with the big guns back in their ranks, only penalties could break the stalemate after 116 stultifying minutes that followed Mandzukic’s fortunate opening goal of the 2018 edition.
The obvious argument is that 10 days of inaction for the likes of Real Madrid superstar Modric and Barcelona’s Rakitic took the edge off highly calibrated players.
Another interpretation is that Dalic was content with stasis. His substitutions appeared to play into this image.
The swap of Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic for Internazionale holder Marcelo Brozovic appeared positive on the surface. But this simply meant that Rakitic dropped deep.
Centre midfielder Milan Badelj rocketed in against Iceland, but his introduction during extra time for Mandzukic was not an adventurous move.
Modric’s through ball to Rebic to force the late, late penalty was incongruous to the negative play that surrounded it.
With Croatia in a bottom half of the draw that becomes more open by the day, greater adventure should gain grand reward.
Kylian Mbappe was the star of the show, scoring twice, while Antoine Griezmann and Benjamin Pavard also got on the scoresheet.
Here’s a look at how the Les Bleus players rated:
Hugo Lloris 6 – Was a step late for Argentina’s first goal, though it was a wonderful strike from Angel Di Maria regardless. Could do little for the other two goals.
Benjamin Pavard 8 – Turned the game around for France with a screamer. It was a moment of inspiration that helped his side regain momentum.
Raphael Varane 6 – Will want to improve his play from set-pieces and crosses, as France conceded two cheap goals when they could have won handsomely.
Samuel Umtiti 6 – Like Varane, was suspect aerially, and will have a harsh look at himself over Argentina’s second and third goals.
Lucas Hernandez 8 – Provided committed defending throughout the game. Argentina tried loading up on his flank throughout, but he was equal to the task.
Paul Pogba 7 – For the most part, couldn’t pull off his attempts at the spectacular, but his passing from the middle of the park was excellent. His first half ball over the top to Mbappe was sublime.
N’Golo Kante 7 – Tasked with paying close attention to Lionel Messi, the Chelsea man carried out his duty with typical diligence.
Kylian Mbappe 9 – This was Mbappe’s coming of age party. He ran Argentina ragged throughout, and his two goals were just reward for a superlative performance.
Antoine Griezmann 8 – A coolly-taken penalty got France going, just minutes after he’d pinged a free kick against the crossbar.
Blaise Matuidi 7 – Shared man-marking duties on Messi with Kante and did a good job of preventing the Argentina man from having his usual impact.
Olivier Giroud 7 – Set up Mbappe’s second goal with a clever touch into the path of his onrushing teammate. In general, his hold-up play was good, although his relationship with Griezmann needs work.
Nabil Fekir 6 – Had a few poor touches and misplaced passes after coming on when he had a chance to help France put their foot on Argentina’s throats.
Corentin Tolisso 5 – There was a dip in quality in midfield once Tolisso came on for Matuidi, as France began to look more vulnerable.
Florian Thauvin 5 – Had little impact after coming on a late sub for hero Mbappe.
Zlatko Dalic’s men won all three matches, including a 3-0 humiliation of Lionel Messi and Argentina, to reinforce their status as dark horses.
This will be tested by ‘Danish Dynamite’. They proved in the competition’s only goalless draw, against France, that the Croats cannot expect a walkover at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Sunday.
Here are the tactical battles:
THROUGH THE MIDDLE
Croatia’s main strength is hardly a secret.
Through Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic, they will look to put a stranglehold on possession against the Danes. It is up to their opponents to break this hold.
Central to this will be head coach Aga Hareide’s deployment of Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen. The 22-year-old started at centre-back for the opening 1-0 victory against Peru and subsequent 1-1 draw with Australia, before moving up into defensive midfield to see things out during the goalless stalemate against France.
Christensen offers a superior passing ability from the back than replacement, Mathias Jorgensen. He also has the legs on 32-year-old Ajax anchor man Lasse Schone in the middle.
A repeat of the France trick could work wonders for the Danes.
ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE
Dalic can count himself a lucky man.
The ex-Al Ain tactician made nine changes when Group D wound up – and Croatia still earned a 2-1 victory against an Iceland side scrapping for survival.
Milan Badelj was utterly outstanding upon his World Cup debut. The 29-year-old, a coveted free agent now his deal at Fiorentina has run down, struck the crossbar, showed wonderful technique to volley in the 53rd-minute opener and made a leading five interceptions.
Food for thought, as Dalic decides whether to draft Brozovic back into the XI.
GET ON THE FRONT FOOT
Denmark have made their intention known that they intend to open up in the knockouts.
It is one thing saying this – and another delivering it.
The return of RB Leipzig forward Yussuf Poulsen – the match-winner against Peru – should add to the Danes’ threat. Otherwise, alternative options for boss Hareide are hard to spot.
Forward Kasper Dolberg endured teething problems during his sophomore campaign at Ajax and was handed only 16 minutes in the group stage. Middlesbrough’s Martin Braithwaite and FC Copenhagen’s Viktor Fischer haven’t fared much better.
Another method could be to go more direct with hulking Atalanta centre forward Andreas Cornelius preferred to Feyenoord’s Nicolai Jorgensen. The former’s average of 8.5 aerials duels won per match in Russia is six more than the latter.
This would provide a greater platform for Eriksen and Sione Pisto to latch onto knockdowns.