KEIR RADNEDGE in RUSSIA —- The Russian dream is over. It was more exciting, more entertaining, more dramatic and lasted far longer than fans and media had either hoped or expected.
Instead, rather than the hosts, it is the battle-weary footballing foot-soldiers of Croatia who have reached Wednesday’s 2018 World Cup semi-final against England. Luka Modric and his teammates needed a wearying two hours to defeat the combative hosts 4-3 on penalties after a 2-2 extra-time draw in Sochi.
Beyond Wednesday, if they can patch themselves back together, lies the possibility of contesting next Sunday’s final against France or Belgium.
The days’s second quarter-final mimicked the first, in which England defeated Sweden 2-0, with an opening halfhour offering plenty of effort but nothing of moment.
Then, out of nothing, Russia went ahead. Denis Cheryshev darted through the centre, exchanged passes with Artem Dzyuba and left keeper Danijel Subasic standing in shock with a lofted 25-metre drive into the top corner of the net.
Remarkably, it was the first goal effort the Russians had managed to deliver on target since the 11th minute of their last Group A match against Uruguay. They had created nothing direct against Spain in the second round.
Russia maintained the momentum and pressure and Croatia held out shakily at the cost of defensive yellow cards for Dejan Lovren and Ivan Strinic. That task accomplished, the Croats snapped back for an equaliser. Mario Mandzukic squeezed in on the left and delivered a short near-post cross which Andrzej Kramaric stopped to head home.
Kramaric continued to prove a handful after the interval. A bicycle kick was saved easily by Igor Akinfeyev but Russia’s goalkeeper-captain was all over the place when Kramaric wriggled through and Ivan Perisic struck an angled shot against the foot of a post.
The toe-to-toe combat continued with no quarter asked or given right through to the final whistle and the restart for extra time.
Half Croatia’s team looked battered and bruised, almost out on their feet. Yet they raised one last gallop and, 10 minutes into the additional time, defender Domagoj Vida stretched his head to a right-wing corner and the ball bobbled down into Akinfeyev’s net.
Russia refused to give up. It’s not in their nature. Hence, with five minutes remaining Mario Fernandes headed his first goal for his adopted country from a free kick by substitute Alan Dzagoev.
So to penalties for the second time in succession for both teams. Fedor Smolov and Mario Fernandes failed for Russia, Mateo Kovacic for Croatia. But Ivan Rakitic struck the last kick decisively to take Croatia into their second World Cup semi-final.
In 1998 Croatia lost to France. Now Modric and his team-mates have matched the achievements of Suker, Prosinecki and Co . . . and, who knows, may go even further?
As for the Russians, they can take not only pride in their tournament organisation but in the reclaiming of respect by their own national team.