Mario Pasalic was cool, calm and collected from the spot. This, the eighth penalty of the shootout, was his chance to send Croatia through to the quarter-finals. Standing on the centre circle, he’d seen his team-mate Marko Livaja strike the post with the previous penalty. Pasalic, though, didn’t flinch. As Japan’s Shuichi Gonda dived to his right, Livaja slotted it to the left and leapt into an embrace with Dominik Livakovic, the Croat goalkeeper who had denied three Japanese players from 12 yards.
As his Croatian team mates ran towards him, the Japanese players sank at the centre circle. It was last-16 heartbreak for them yet again. The quarter-finals remain a promised land. For Croatia, it continues a remarkable run. This was their fourth straight win in a World Cup knockout tie that had gone beyond the normal time. Four years ago, when they reached the final in Russia — which they eventually lost to France, Croatia had won all their knockout ties in shootouts or extra-time.
But here at the vessel-shaped Al Janoub Stadium, its design is a depiction of Qatar’s traditional dhow fishing boats, with the tie locked at 1-1 after 120 minutes, they did it without their talisman Luka Modric. Now 37, playing at his last World Cup, the masterful Modric was substituted eight minutes into the extra period. Those on the pitch were now playing for their captain; especially Livakovic who pulled off a stunning save to deny Kaoru Mitoma close to the end of the first period of extra time.
He then came good in the shootout; first diving to his left to block Takimi Minamino’s opening penalty of the shootout and then to his right to deny Mitoma. Croatia had scored their first two but Livaja’s miss, which came after Takuma Asano had scored one for the Japanese, injected fresh life into the shootout. Livakovic, though, blocked Maya Yoshida’s penalty and set the stage for Pasalic to seal it. Modric, on the bench, in arms with the rest of the substitutes, leapt in joy. His World Cup journey continues. But Japan’s journey in Qatar came to an end. This one will hurt because they had been on the better side for long periods of the game.
A breathless start had given way to a sedate, cautious play by both teams. But at the half-hour mark, the crowd began clapping in unison; the noise it generated echoing across and down to the pitch, urging the players to recover the early tempo. Croatia are the masters of constriction. Japan, on the other hand, are adept at playing on the recoil. Spain and Germany saw their energy on the counter and succumbed to it in the group stage. Here, Croatia were trying to suck out their energy.
It had become a chess game, Croatia, wary of Japan’s abilities, weren’t forcing the issue. They weren’t too ambitious with the ball and defended in numbers. This is a side that keeps faith in the lung-busting stamina of its players — Croatia used the fewest players among all the teams in the group stage. Japan rely on quick breaks and they weren’t getting any. Junya Ito was superb down the right, combining with Ritsu Doan, who was handed a starting berth here after scoring in his team’s wins against Spain and Germany after coming on from the bench. But the Croats, with numbers at the back, were up to the task in cutting off those crosses.
Japan seemed to have lost their early momentum and Croatia had reduced this to walking pace. But the Japanese weren’t giving up and showed their industry and invention to take the lead two minutes from half-time. Doan played a short corner down the right to Daichi Kamada and got the ball back before whipping in a cross which forced a scramble in the box. But captain Maya Yoshida’s endeavour meant the ball fell to Daizen Maeda who made no mistake.
It was a deserving lead for Japan which meant that Croatia couldn’t afford to sit back in this game. It paved the way for a more open second half. Croatia began with more intent; Mateo Kovacic flashing wide early on. Then they tuned up the pressure, trying to ping crosses into the box. It was on one of them that Croatia leveled the game in the 55th. Dejan Lovren put in a superb cross from the right but there was a lot of work still needed to be done by Ivan Perisic, who peeled away from his marker and found the power and placement with his head to steer it past a diving Gonda on the far post.
Having got their goal, Croatia began pressing more for the win but it was Japan who regained the lead almost immediately; Wataru Endo’s stinging shot from 25 yards needing a hand from Livakovic to turn it away. At the other end, Modric forced Gonda into a fingertips save from Gonda. Ante Budimir, on as a substitute, had the best chance though with a quarter of normal time left to play. Andrej Kramaric’s shot had deflected to him but Budimir headed it wide from eight yards. Both defences held firm after that, last-ditch tackles came flying in, and once again Croatia prevailed in a knockout game that went past the 90.