Russia have only once made the last four, finishing fourth more than 50 years ago in 1966. Croatia, meanwhile, stunned everyone when they finished third on their World Cup bow in 1998 – they’d only been a fully-fledged country for five years.
Here, we look at three talking points ahead of the game.
CAN THE HOSTS CEMENT HERO STATUS?
Russia came into the tournament with their fans legitimately wondering if their team would surpass South Africa as the only host nation never to emerge from the group stage.
Three weeks on, they’re dreaming of emulating the great Soviet Union side led by the legendary Lev Yashin that finished fourth in England more than half a century ago.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s side have already captured the hearts of their nation – and many others – by their run to the quarter-finals. This is historic in itself as the last eight has not been breached since 1970.
In the intervening years and 11 tournaments that have since passed, Russian football has slowly descended into ruin and chaos.
Disqualified four years later after refusing to travel for the second leg of their play-off against Chile as a result of the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat, they have failed to qualify for four more.
When they have been present, they have offered little. The second group stage and round of 16 were reached in 1982 and 1986. Four group-stage exits have bookended Russia’s last four tournaments (1990, 1994, 2002 and 2014).
They have already surpassed expectations. They now have a very presentable opportunity to transform themselves from scolded child, to earning parity with legends and the praise of mother Russia.
They’ve played some exquisite football en route to the knockout stages, but the Croatian craft so evident during the group stage was conspicuous by its absence in the round of 16 against Denmark.
So impressive as they swept to three wins and nine points to top Group D, that 3-0 mauling of 2014 finalists Argentina particularly memorable, but Zlatko Dalic’s side were equally as uninspiring in shuffling past the great Danes.
This is despite the fact there was not a mammoth differential in the stats from the last 16 game and three in the group.
Their 80-per-cent pass success rate was akin to their three previous wins (86, 76 and 79 versus Iceland, Argentina and Nigeria respectively). They actually played more key passes (13) than in any other game – yet the only one that springs to mind is Luka Modric’s laser-beam ball through to Ante Rebic that led to the penalty in extra-time.
So is it simply a case of Croatia enduring an off day and their flair players failing to shine? Or, were they unable to break down a more stoic side and did they run out of ideas, despite the myriad of midfield technicians at their disposal?
It’s a conundrum Dalic will hope to rectify against Russia.
GALVANISED CROATIA LOOK TO REPEAT 1998 GLORY
Ante Rebic revealed the Croatia squad have spent this week recounting fond memories of their fledgling nation shocking the world on their way to finishing third at the 1998 World Cup in France.
That glorious group contained some sublime talents such as Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Mario Stanic and Goran Vlaovic.
The 2018 vintage is perhaps not quite so stellar but is still packed with tantalising talent plying their trade with Europe’s best clubs – Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic, Mario Mandzukic and of course Luka Modric.
Rebic wouldn’t have been near that group prior to the tournament, but he’s been a key component of Croatia’s quest to emulate the heroes of two decades ago.
He was excellent as the Vatreni vanquished Argentina in a performance that made the elite sit up and take notice.
He’s certainly grabbed his chance since being reintroduced to the international fold – Dalic brought him back in after he had fallen out of favour under predecessor Ante Cacic.
And it’s proved a masterstroke from a manager who’s guided his side to the last eight despite troubles off the pitch – the trial of former Dinamo Zagreb chief Zdravko Mamic and subsequent charges against Modric for alleged false testimony, not to mention AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic being sent home after reportedly refusing to come off the bench against Nigeria.
Rebic, 24, won’t have vivid memories of ’98 – he was just four. But he will dream of playing his own part in the latest chapter of Croatian football history.
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