FOUR days before their quarter-final against Russia, Croatia scheduled a news conference with Danijel Subasic and Domagoj Vida. The goalkeeper and the defender agreed they expected a tough game in which the hosts would attack them. “They are playing at home so we expect such a performance from them.”
They did get that kind of performance from the hosts. But with sheer grit and determination, Croatia went through after an injured Subasic starred in a spine-tingling 4-3 victory in a penalty shootout on Saturday night after a 2-2 draw in extra-time in which Vida had scored to briefly give them the lead.
“We’re struggling for our country and our colours,” Vida told reporters after the match. “We will continue to do this and fight, shed blood, sweat and tears.”
When Vida scored in the 101st minute here at the Fisht Stadium with a slow downward header that evaded a crowd of bodies and went it, it looked it would be enough for them. Russia had taken the lead through Denis Cheryshev’s stunning strike from the outside of the box in the 31st minute but Andrej Kramaric had levlled eight minutes later when he bent down to head in Mario Mandzukic’s low cross.
Croatia were left fretting when Subasic, the hero of their quarter-final shootout triumph against Denmark with three saves, went down clutching his hamstring in the last moments of regulation time. Yet, he soldiered on and making key saves after Vida had given them the lead only to be undone by Mario Fernandes’ header five minutes from time that took the game to a shootout.
“Suba defended everything that came his way,” Croatia defender Dejan Lovren told reporters. “We couldn’t ask more from him.”
Playing through the pain — Subasic was given extensive treatment on his hamstring every time the game stopped — the Croatian goalkeeper ensured Russia started the shootout on the backfoot when he made a superb save to block Fedor Smolov’s paneka attempt.
“He could go on and that was the most important thing,” Croatian captain Luka Modric told reporters. “I’m not sure how it [the injury] affected him. But he saved fantastically the first shot in the shootout. I asked him and he said he was fine and it didn’t affect him much.”
Just like the match, the penalty shootout saw the momentum swing in each team’s favour.
“It’s easier to play than to watch such a game,” Kramaric, who had been substituted for the last 30 minutes, told reporters. “On the bench, the nervousness creeps in while on the field of play, you are more focused.”
After Smolov’s miss, Marcelo Brozovic and Alan Dzagoev scored before Igor Akinfeev saved a week effort from Mateo Kovacic to put both teams on level terms after four penalties. Fernandes, the last Brazilian left at the World Cup, could’ve written himself into the folklore of his adopted country but he flashed wide and Russia were unlucky when Akinfeev got a hand to Modric’s penalty but it went in off the upright.
Sergei Ignashevich, Vida, Daler Kuziaev didn’t miss and so didn’t Ivan Rakitic — the man who’d scored the final penalty against Denmark scoring the last one again to send his team to a semi-final against England in Moscow on Wednesday.
“It was incredible,” Rakitic told reporters. “I think we were good in the second-half and almost confirmed our victory in the extra-time. There is not beautiful feeling than this … that we’ve reached the semi-finals.”
His midfield partner Modric said it was in their destiny to go through to the semis in nerve-shredding style.
“Maybe it’s written in the stars that we have to go through this drama,” he said. “It’s our second time in the semi-finals, after 1998, and it makes us extremely proud and happy. After 20 years, we’ve reached a semi-final of a World Cup. We have been unlucky at other tournaments but now we’re collecting those debts this year. Hopefully, we’ll go a step further than in 1998.”
Semi-final schedule (all times PST)
July 10 France vs Belgium St Petersburg 11:00pm July 11 England vs Croatia Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow 11:00pm
Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018