Ivan Rakitic scored the winning penalty as Croatia beat Russia 4-3 in a shoot-out after a 2-2 draw to end the World Cup hopes of the host nation and advance to a semi-final against England.
Brazil-born Mario Fernandes had kept Russia’s dream alive when he headed home in the 115th minute to level and force penalties.But he and Fyodor Smolov both failed to convert their spot-kicks in Sochi.
Andrej Kramaric and Domagoj Vida found the net for Croatia prior to penalties as they advanced to their first World Cup semi-final since 1998.
Here are the things we learned from the Fisht Stadium.
ONE STEP FORWARD, BUT ONE STEP BACK
Croatia booked a semi-final spot against England but their performance yet again mirrored their shirts – chequered. Indeed, the Three Lions have little to fear from Zlatko Dalic’s side.
All the verve and vivacity promised by this classy team possessing the twin orchestral creators of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic was saved for and used up in the dazzling demolition of Argentina.
The win over Nigeria was routine but uninspired, while the 2-1 victory over tiny Iceland was only secured late on.
They required penalties to edge past Denmark in the last-16 and although Modric missed a spot-kick in injury time, one wonders where they would be without the Real Madrid maestro’s steady direction.
He was tireless but largely limited against Russia, his early influence stumped by playing in a deeper role as Kramaric was deployed in behind Mario Mandzukic.
By the time Marcelo Brozovic entered the fray after the hour mark to push him up the pitch, the 32-year-old’s rhythm was already knocked off beat.
Croatia were one paced, lacked any ingenuity outside of Modric and were fortunate to secure progression.
It was one step forward. But in reality, it was also a step back.
WHO DO YOU LUKA FOR SUPPORT?
So when Modric is man-marked, and as was the case against Russia at times, doubled up on, who can Croatia credibly call upon?
Rakitic was once again a picture of calm amid chaos in dispatching the definitive spot-kick. But as he did against Denmark, he offered little outside of that.
The Barcelona midfielder touched the ball 112 times but failed to produce one key pass with his use of the ball while accurate, largely just side to side as Croatia probed without penetration.
Ivan Perisic arrived in Russia with a big reputation having previously been linked with Manchester United. But has so far flattered to deceive.
Ante Rebic on the opposite flank is a livewire, who fizzles out as games go on.
Ultimately, they owed their success to fortune with both their goals down to a slackness in the Russian defence, first in their scattered marking to allow Kramaric acres of space to head home in the box and then to allow a tame Vida header to creep in from a corner.
Even in the shootout, Fernandes and Smolov assisted them with two brainless efforts.
Modric ran the show against Jordan Henderson in the Champions League final so will no doubt be looking forward to that contest. But if the rest of his team-mates don’t pick up their performances, it may end up being inconsequential what he does.
ANOTHER CHERYSHEV ON TOP OF THE CAKE
Such has been the eruptive nature this of this World Cup, any one of about 10 goals could be considered the tournament’s best.
And Denis Cheryshev within that has a battle against himself. His fourth on home soil added to the two slick strikes he plundered against Saudi Arabia in Russia’s tournament opener.
The phrase ‘goal of the tournament’ has been spewed out on a number of occasions, but it is fair to chuck Cheryshev’s latest explosive effort in the mix.
It was a rocket, and one fired straight up Croatia as it shocked them in to action with their equaliser arriving four minutes later.
The towering frontman Artem Dzyuba laid the ball off perfectly and Cheryshev’s deft first touch on his right foot took it away from a diving Luka Modric before he detonated with his hammer of a left-foot.
Danijel Subasic was rooted to his spot, although quite why he was stood on the edge of his six-yard box as Cheryshev advanced is beyond us.
Still, take nothing away from the Villarreal forward who is doing his best to build a reputation as a scorer of great goals rather than being known for the institutional embarrassment during his stint with Real Madrid.
Four goals, three of them stunners, the 27-year-old is the James Rodriguez of this World Cup and only Oleg Salenko (six in 1994) has netted more in a single edition of the tournament for Russia (including USSR).
Russia suffered a heart-breaking loss in the World Cup quarter-final, losing on penalties to Croatia after a gripping 2-2 draw.
The tournament hosts had fought back admirably after going behind in extra time, but the lottery of spot-kicks went against them after they had won their previous shootout against Spain.
Here’s how the players rated individually.
Igor Akinfeev 6 – Will wonder how he was beaten for Croatia’s second, though it was a finely-placed header. Could do nothing for the first goal. Made a good save in the shootout.
Mario Fernandes 7 – A willing runner up the right flank and some of his passing was sublime. It’s a shame his penalty miss will be remembered more than his goal.
Ilya Kutepov 7 – A largely reliable presence at the back, and his ability to produce inch-perfect long-balls over the top was a crucial part of Russia’s attack.
Sergei Ignashevich 7 – As ever, a solid performance from Russia’s Mr. Dependable. Scored a nerveless penalty.
Fedor Kudryashov 6 – Russia’s left-back had his hands full as Modric, Vrsaljko and Rebic overloaded his flank. With that in mind, he held his own.
Daler Kuzyaev 6 – Didn’t look overawed against Croatia’s midfield, although some of his passing could have been better.
Roman Zobnin 7 – A solid display in midfield from Zobnin, who looked comfortable against Croatia’s Modric-Rakitic axis.
Aleksandr Samedov 5 – A performance of great effort but little telling impact. His passing wasn’t at its best and he didn’t contribute enough in attack.
Aleksandr Golovin 5 – A strangely quiet performance after a strong start to the tournament. What was even stranger was that the 22-year-old – Russia’s best striker of a dead ball – didn’t take a penalty in the shootout.
Denis Cheryshev 8 – The Valencia man added to his collection of picture-perfect goals with a wonderful first-half strike. Faded as the game went on, but that was to be expected given the energy he was expending.
Artem Dzyuba 7 – As ever, a bruising presence leading the line, and his work to set up Cheryshev’s wonder-strike was superb. His calm head was missed during the shootout, as he’d already been taken off by then.
Aleksandr Erokhin 6 – A solid contribution after coming on as a substitute, although the winger was needed more defensively than in attack.
Fedor Smolov 5 – His penalty was utterly woeful, and it perhaps set the tone for the rest of the shootout as Russia came up short.
Yuri Gazinsky 6 – Brought on towards the end of normal time and did his best to provide stability in midfield as his teammates began to tire.
Alan Dzagoev 8 – A perfect delivery to set up Russia’s extra-time equaliser. Exactly the sort of impact he was brought on to make.
Croatia are headed to the World Cup semi-final after winning a penalty shootout for the second straight round, this time to knock out hosts Russia after the game finished 2-2 after extra time.
Almost to a man, Croatia’s players performed admirably to match the efforts of their famous side from 1998, which reached the same stage.
Here’s a look at how the players rated.
Danijel Subasic 7 – Left looking statuesque for Russia’s first goal, although it was a wonderful strike from Cheryshev. Made some crucial saves throughout the match, including one in the penalty shootout.
Sime Vrsaljko 7 – A battling display from Croatia’s right back, who was always in the thick of the action.
Dejan Lovren 5 – A shaky and occasionally error-strewn performance from the Liverpool man who has had such a good World Cup.
Domagoj Vida 7 – He was left looking a little silly for Cheryshev’s goal, but redeemed himself by scoring Croatia’s second, and then converting his penalty in the shootout.
Ivan Strinic 6 – Was given a tough evening by Cheryshev and Dzyuba, and though he just about held his own it wasn’t a surprise when he was the first man taken off.
Luka Modric 8 – It’s saying something that a player who was already considered one of the best in the world at his position has enhanced his reputation this summer. His play in midfield was delightful.
Ivan Rakitic 7 – The Barcelona man’s reverence for his midfield partner Modric almost sells himself short. He might not be quite as good, but this was another accomplished performance, including stroking home the winning penalty.
Ante Rebic 6 – Didn’t quite scale the same heights of previous games in the tournament. His impact here was more as a willing, tireless runner than to produce anything spectacular.
Andrej Kramaric 8 – A performance that typifies what Kramaric brings to the table. At one moment he was scoring a crucial equaliser, at another he was back clearing the ball in his own box.
Ivan Perisic 6 – The Croatia winger delivered a typical workhorse performance. However, he missed a glorious opportunity to win the game in normal time, hitting the post with the goal open.
Mario Mandzukic 8 – As always, led the line with aplomb, serving as a bruising presence and delivering the assist for Croatia’s equaliser with a clever run and pass.
Marcelo Brozovic 7 – May have been a little miffed to miss out on a starting berth, but he shook off the disappointment to produce a composed display after coming on.
Josip Pivaric 6 – A stable presence after coming on at left-back for Croatia, instantly getting up to speed in an intense game.
Mateo Kovacic 6 – Kovacic hasn’t had enough chances to show the flashes of talent that have marked out his potential, and here, he fluffed his lines in the penalty shoot-out.
Vedran Corluka 7 – Made sure Croatia’s back-line didn’t miss a beat even after losing a player as crucial as Vrsaljko in extra time.