Russia v Croatia player battles as Real Madrid magician Luka Modric brings an all-round game to the World Cup

Matt Jones - Editor 14:14 06/07/2018
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  • Russia will hope to defy the doubters once again as they go in search of just a second-ever World Cup semi-final spot and first since 1966 when they were known as the Soviet Union.

    Standing in their path are a Croatia side built to create, but who struggled against Denmark in the last 16, having earlier breezed to top spot in Group D with three wins from three, ahead of Argentina.

    Zlatko Dalic’s side are chasing their own history, looking to emulate the side of 20 years ago, who finished third place in France.

    Ahead of the game, we look at the key players for each side.


    06 07 Russia v Croatia Key Battles 1

    Igor Akinfeev, much like Russia, came into the tournament under a cloud, fully expected to join South Africa as the only World Cup hosts to not make it beyond the group phase.

    But the host nation have already proved to be heroes, far exceeding expectations. And CSKA Moscow stopper Akinfeev has epitomised their grit and resolve, while exorcising some World Cup demons in the process.

    Life was anything but a beach for the 32-year-old in Brazil four years ago. Akinfeev’s horrendous gaffe in their opening group game against South Korea – the nation’s maiden finals appearance in 12 years – saw him allow Lee Keun-ho’s speculative effort to squirm through his grasp and over the line, with team-mate Alexander Kerzhakov sparing his blushes when he equalised late on to salvage a 1-1 draw.

    He’s attracted criticism throughout his career for many a high profile blunder, but Akinfeev has been awesome during Russia’s run to the quarter-finals – his 14 saves place him joint-third, only behind Mexico guardian Guillermo Ochoa and Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel. His heroics in the dramatic last 16 penalty shootout victory over Spain will also live long in the memory.

    Speaking of penalties, and Croatia custodian Danijel Subasic will be full of confidence having played a huge hand in his nation’s route to the last eight.

    He saved penalties from Christian Eriksen, Lasse Schone and Nicolai Jorgensen as Croatia crept past the dangerous Danes in the round of 16, emerging as the hero as Croatia look to emulate the third-place finish of the star-studded side at France ’98.

    The Monaco stopper has conceded only one goal in three games so far, and even though it was a howler to gift Denmark the lead last time out, he has otherwise been imperious and will be eying a third clean sheet in Sochi.


    06 07 Russia v Croatia Key Battles 2

    Luka Modric is a world-class talent whose impish skills as a midfield technician are a joy to behold, of that there is no doubt. Despite his incredible cunning and craft, however, it is only with Croatia that his undeniable ability is truly recognised and respected.

    At club level he, understandably perhaps, operates from the considerable shadow cast by Cristiano Ronaldo. Isco, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema largely occupy any spare column inches.

    But following a season in which Modric’s Madrid form and future has come under scrutiny like none of his previous five, the 32-year-old has served up a reminder of his rarefied and resplendent talent in Russia.

    His 2.5 average key passes per game is 13th at the tournament, but none of the top 12 have played more minutes (365) than him. He averages 60 passes per game (13.5 more than any teammate) and has scored two goals.

    Most impressive though is how Modric has contributed in other areas. The diminutive 5ft 8in midfield dynamo is winning on average two aerial duels per game, while the mental fortitude displayed in scoring in the shootout over Denmark, having earlier missed one in extra-time to win the game outright, was beyond impressive.

    Russia’s route to the last eight has been built on defensive solidity and a stoic team spirit, but CSKA Moscow’s Aleksandr Golovin has added a sprinkling of stardust to the combative and courageous approach from Stanislav Cherchesov’s side.

    What’s been even more impressive than the two assists and the stylish Saudi Arabia goal – up there with the best of the tournament – is how he’s taken on the creative burden expected to be shouldered by Alan Dzagoev.

    The  injury suffered by Golovin’s clubmate, who is incidentally fit again for the Croatia match, was supposed to hasten Russia’s exit. Instead, at 1-0 up against the Green Falcons, Denis Cheryshev entered the fray and Russia took off, and still haven’t come down.

    They may well be grounded by Croatia but they’ve captured the hearts of their nation, and 22-year-old Golovin has a bright future ahead of him.


    06 07 Russia v Croatia Key Battles 3

    Harry Kane, check. Cristiano Ronaldo, check. Romelu Lukaku, check. Artem Dzyuba…who?! He’s hardly a household name, yet the Zenit Saint Petersburg powerhouse is trailing just behind these three behemoths in the goalscoring stakes in Russia with three strikes.

    That included an ice cold conversion of his penalty to draw the hosts level with 2010 champions Spain in a last 16 triumph that sent shockwaves around the rest of Russia.

    Dzyuba isn’t even a household name in a Russian squad that has rebelled against the establishment at this World Cup. At 29, he’s played just 27 times for the national team, those caps earned sporadically since his debut seven years ago.

    One appearance per year was registered until 2014 when he finally broke out. Yet even with the World Cup approaching he failed to feature once in 2017. He had been called up to the squads for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup but missed out, although he’s certainly made up for lost time here. His goalscoring record is hugely impressive throughout all national team levels and 14 from 27 senior caps is eye-catching to say the least.

    Like Dzyuba, Mandzukic is a striker who won’t necessarily get the credit he deserves despite being an adroit goal-getter. A record of 31 strikes in 86 caps isn’t prolific, but then the Juventus forward’s game is so much more.

    Holding the ball up, tirelessly stretching defences into submission and making intelligent runs either onto throughballs or to open up space for Croatia’s craftsmen are all caveats to Mandzukic’s game.

    He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time too (his solitary goal in the last 16 against Denmark is evidence of that) and he always shows up for the big games – so expect him to make a significant impact in Sochi.