Croatia ends Russia's World Cup run, squeaks through to semis on penalties

Russia’s 2018 World Cup is over. The hosts are out. Their campaign ended just as it had climaxed six days earlier, on penalties. But only after 120 minutes of twists and turns – 120 minutes befitting of the tournament’s most unforeseen run.

Russia had been ahead, then behind, then, for the second straight elimination match against a favored European side, level and headed to the penalty spot. But this time it fell, by the finest of margins, to Croatia.

Ivan Rakitic, for the second time in seven days, stepped up to the penalty spot in the final round of a shootout. And just like he had on Sunday, he sent Croatia through in the World Cup knockout rounds, this time to the semifinals, where England awaits.


For all of 15 minutes, Mario Fernandes had been a Russian savior. Two years ago, he was not even a Russian citizen. On Saturday in Sochi, he skied into Russian folklore, his header knotting a topsy-turvy match at 2-2 with six minutes remaining in extra time.


But before Fernandes’ remarkable story had time to sink in, he had spoiled his own moment. He had slid a penalty wide of the left post, one of two costly shootout misses that dashed Russian World Cup dreams.

The game had ended 1-1 after 90 minutes and 2-2 after 120. In the shootout, Fyodor Smolov set Russia off on the wrong foot. He stuttered, then dinked a chip toward goal. Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, hampered by an apparent hamstring injury late in the game, reached up to parry it away.


Marcelo Brozovic gave Croatia the lead. But Alan Dzagoev got Russia on the board, and Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev denied Mateo Kovacic to level the spot kicks.

Then Fernandes missed to give Croatia the edge. Luka Modric snuck his penalty past Akinfeev. Domagoj Vida, who had headed Croatia into an extra-time lead before Fernandes’ equalizer, also converted. And Rakitic, the closer in the Round of 16 against Denmark, came through in the clutch once again.

Russia goes ahead

A relatively uneventful first half sprung into life in the 31st minute. Denis Cheryshev, Russia’s leading goalscorer at the World Cup, struck again. His thunderbolt left Subasic rooted to his spot, as if in awe:

Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba played a one-two into the very space Croatia’s lineup change had left exposed. Modric and Rakitic had been deployed as a midfield two, without protection or support, and their lack of defensive presence was costly.

But it’s silly to dish out blame for a goal of such quality. It was Cheryshev’s fourth of the tournament, matching his four in all competitions for Villarreal over the entirety of last season. He came into the World Cup as a bench player. Over four weeks, he turned into one of its breakout stars.

Croatia equalizes

Russia coughed up its lead because it was a step slow reacting to a Croatian goal kick. There wasn’t necessarily an individual error. But there were a series of individual battles lost by the hosts.

Subasic sent a long ball toward left back Ivan Strinic, who won an aerial duel and flicked a header to Ivan Perisic. Perisic, with a Russia defender rotating to him, helped the ball on to Mario Mandzukic. Mandzukic, with Russia scrambling, picked out Andrej Kramaric for the equalizer:


Russia’s defense didn’t exactly cover itself in glory …


… but Croatia deserved to be level going into halftime, and it was.

It was the better team after the break as well, even if only slightly. And it had a glorious chance at the lead around the hour mark.

A goalmouth scramble presented Perisic with the ball at the penalty spot, with time to get it out of his feet. But he dragged his shot off one post, across the goal line, around the other post and out for a goal kick:


Croatia’s technical ability – especially that of Modric – made it the more dangerous team in the second half.

Russian players, however, clearly had more left in their lungs and legs. They had wowed with their work rates through four games, covering more ground than any other team at the tournament. While Croatia tired and cramps, Russia’s constant running kept the visitors at bay, and sent the game to extra time.

Extra time

If it were merely a battle of attrition, the Russians would have prevailed. Croatian players were dropping like flies. Subasic, the goalkeeper, received treatment and was very nearly substituted. In extra time, fullback Sime Vrsaljko and Mandzukic were both struggling.

Vida, though, mustered the strength to give Croatia its first lead of the knockout stages:


But Fernandes equalized with a header of his own in the 115th minute:


That sent the game to penalties. But Croatia, for the second time in a week, snuck through to take on England.

Croatia players celebrate their penalty shootout victory over Russia in the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals. (AP)

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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