One-legged Subašić breaks Russian hearts

It all came down to one kick. Ivan Rakitić was attempting to put his penalty into the back of the net to send Croatia into the World Cup’s last four. Igor Akinfeev was the man tasked with barring his way and keeping Russia’s World Cup dreams alive. On the halfway line, Croatia’s players were waiting, preparing to burst into celebration but not willing to move in case Rakitić failed to convert. Next to them, Russia’s players watched helplessly, knowing that their World Cup could be over any second. On the sideline, Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić sat alone, not even daring to watch Rakitić’s kick. In the stands, the parochial Russian crowd watched and prayed. Rakitić slotted the penalty, and the host nation’s luck finally ran out. Croatia were ecstatic, Russia heartbroken.

In the end, it was Danijel Subašić who made the difference with a heroic performance. Subašić had been the hero in Croatia’s round of 16 penalty shootout win, saving three penalties and ensuring a talented Croatian team’s progress to the last eight. Like the round of 16 clash with Denmark, his night started pretty uneventfully, with Russia generally sitting back and not giving him too much work to do.

Russia settled into the match quicker than their opponents, but they didn’t create any real chances and Croatia quickly retook the ascendency after overcoming their early nerves. Once they had control, they found it easy enough to keep it. On the right wing, Ante Rebić was causing problems with his size and pace, and right-back Šime Vrsaljko was also looking threatening when he forayed into the attacking third. Mario Mandžukić was looking threatening as crosses came to him inside the box, and Luka Modrić was pulling the strings from deep in midfield. Russia half-threatened on a couple of counter-attacks, but Croatia were dictating the tempo of the game. Then the hosts scored.

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Denis Cheryshev (centre) scores Russia’s opening goal from outside the box. Cheryshev’s strike was unstoppable, and it put Croatia under pressure.

It came from one moment of breathtaking individual brilliance. There hadn’t been too many chances in the preceding minutes, with the action slowing and the game settling into something of a lull. Then Denis Cheryshev received the ball just inside his attacking half. Through congestion, he controlled the ball and laid it off to giant striker Artem Dzyuba. Dzyuba managed to lay off a return pass, but Cheryshev was still a long way away. Modrić slid, but he couldn’t stop Cheryshev’s first touch from sending the dynamic winger into space. Domagoj Vida attempted to block Cheryshev’s path, but he couldn’t stop Russia’s in-form attacker from lashing a shot towards goal. Subašić was on the scene, but the Croatian goalkeeper was unable to intervene as the ball curved into the back of the net. The spectacular strike sent the home crowd into raptures, and it gave Russia’s confidence a massive boost. Suddenly, Croatia needed to respond. A few minutes later, respond they did.

Croatia found some space, and they scored. It was that simple. Mario Mandžukić found himself in behind the Russian defence thanks to a clever pass from Ivan Perišić, and he charged into the box facing little resistance. Eventually Ilya Kutepov came to meet him, but the damage was already done as Mandžukić’s cross found Andrej Kramarić in the centre. The Russian defence was too stretched to stop him as he headed the ball into the bottom corner. It was a simple, well-executed goal, and it put Croatia back on level terms.

Croatia continued to attack as the second half began, and they put Russia under pressure with a few attempts. Kramarić was particularly lively as he aimed to add to his earlier goal, finding the ball inside the box and at one point he unleashed a bicycle kick. There was chaos in the box when Kramarić athletically pulled a wayward ball into the box back into a dangerous spot, and Perišić received the ball in space. He wasn’t far out, and his shot looked destined for the back of the net even when it hit the inside of the post. It bounced out and rolled across goal, and Russia breathed a big sigh of relief.

After Perišić’s very near miss, the chances dried up. Croatia were still the better side, but they couldn’t breach the Russian defence and didn’t really threaten. Occasionally the ball pinballed around the Russian penalty area, but Croatia never got a clear chance out of it. Then, with only a few minutes of normal time remaining, Subašić became the centre of attention.

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Domagoj Vida (right) is tackled by Dejan Lovren after putting Croatia ahead in the 101st minute. Vida was booked for removing his shirt, but he didn’t seem too concerned by the caution.

His night hadn’t been particularly busy, with Russia never really forcing him into too much action. Then he raced to prevent a deflected cross from running out for a corner, and the game changed dramatically. Subašić got there, prevented the ball from going out, and then slapped the ground in pain. He seemed to have injured his hamstring, and as he lay on the ground receiving treatment it seemed as if his night was over. Unfortunately for Croatia, all their substitutions were used. Subašić couldn’t come off, and they needed to carry him through until extra time, when the option of a fourth change would materialise.

Croatia protected him well during injury time. They mostly kept the ball, with the only nervous moment coming when Fyodor Smolov decided to test the goalkeeper out from an acute angle. He was in position, and he made the save. When extra time came around, Subašić received extra attention, but it seemed likely that he would be substituted. Dominik Livaković had been warming up, and he seemed likely to fill the void in the final 30 minutes of the match.

Livaković never appeared. Instead, Subašić battled on, going out for extra time with the rest of his team. The last substitution was made shortly after extra time began, when Vrsaljko pulled up awkwardly and required a replacement. Subašić was on his own. Russia looked the more dangerous team, especially when Dejan Lovren inadvertently played Smolov through. Lovren recovered well, but the warning was clear. Then Croatia scored, and seemingly sealed the deal.

The goal originated from a well-delivered corner. Modrić’s delivery eluded Mandžukić and Sergei Ignashevich as they launched themselves at the ball, and Vida was waiting unmarked behind them. The Croatian centre-back (who became a makeshift right-back after Vrsaljko’s injury) headed it goalward. It wasn’t a brilliant header, or unstoppable by any means. Somehow, it evaded the defenders who were standing in its path, and Akinfeev stood rooted to the spot as it slowly trickled into the back of the net. Vida celebrated with understandable excitement, as a pile of Croatian players formed near the corner flag. Meanwhile, referee Sandro Ricci waited awkwardly on the edge of the celebratory scrum, waiting for the pack to dissipate so that Vida could be booked for removing his shirt. He didn’t care too much about the yellow.

Russia didn’t give up, and they kept fighting for the equaliser. At that point Subašić came into his own. He was still operating on one leg, and he was severely compromised, but he continued to throw himself around to deny the Russians. As the first period of extra time came to a close, he was brought to ground after jumping into a pack to catch a free-kick. He looked to have done further damage, but he had to continue anyway. In the second period, the intensity ramped up. Subašić punched a corner away, but Daler Kuzyayev found the rebound and somehow found himself thwarted by the Croatian goalkeeper’s follow-up save. Subašić threw himself at Smolov’s cross to bat it away. Then, after pushing for some time, Russia beat the wounded goalkeeper.

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Croatian players celebrate after their victory in the penalty shootout. It was their second win on penalties in two games, making them the second team to win consecutive World Cup shootouts and booking their first semi-final since 1998.

It started with Josip Pivarić, whose bone-headed handball on the edge of the box gave Russia a free-kick in a very dangerous position. The kick was well delivered by Alan Dzagoev, who was making his first appearance since his injury in the opening game of the tournament, and Mário Fernandes was in a perfect position to get his head on it. He diverted the header into the bottom corner, leaving Subašić with no chance of making the stop. The Croatian keeper was forced into one more save late in extra time, keeping the scores level with a diving stop despite his injury, but Russia couldn’t get the goal to go ahead. After 120 gripping, drama-filled minutes, the two teams would have to be split on penalties.

Russia seemed to hold all the cards. Kicking first, Smolov stepped up to the spot to face Subašić. Seemingly compensating for his injury, the goalkeeper bounced around on the goal line energetically as Smolov approached the ball. It’s hard to say how much of an impact the hopping on the spot had, but Subašić made the save, throwing himself the right way and contemptuously batting away Smolov’s ill-advised attempt to chip him. Marcelo Brozović scored, and Croatia were ahead. Then, after Dzagoev put his penalty away, Akinfeev levelled it up for Russia. He dived the right way, and Mateo Kovačić’s penalty was denied. The teams were back on level terms, and it wasn’t clear which goalkeeper could repeat the feat.

Subašić didn’t have to. Fernandes stepped up with the scores level, and missed the target altogether. Suddenly, Croatia had the advantage once more, even though Subašić didn’t move a muscle. Then, Akinfeev saved Modrić’s penalty. Or so all involved thought. Akinfeev guessed right, and got a solid enough hand on the ball to divert it into the post. It should have bounced out. To all intents and purposes, it seemed to have bounced out. Then it appeared in the back of the net, on the other side of the goal. Modrić had scored – just. Ignashevich scored, but it didn’t really matter. Russia needed a save for any of their goals to mean a thing. Akinfeev couldn’t save Vida’s penalty. Subašić couldn’t stop Kuzyayev’s either, leaving Rakitić with the unenviable task of taking the high-pressure kick. It was the second such penalty he had taken at this tournament, and he did it with aplomb. They did it tough, but Croatia went through. That’s all they can ask for.

Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115)
Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Bra)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Kudryashov; Zobnin, Kuzyayev; Samedov (Yerokhin 54), Golovin (Dzagoev 102), Cheryshev (Smolov 67); Dzyuba (Gazinsky 79).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 74); Rakitić, Modrić; Rebić, Kramarić (Kovačić 88), Perišić (Brozović 63); Mandžukić.

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Danijel Subašić and Ivan Rakitić celebrate after Rakitić’s winning penalty. Subašić battled through a painful injury to play out the match and save a penalty in the shootout.

Top 5
1. Danijel Subašić (Croatia)
Subašić’s game looked over when he started slapping the ground and clutching his hamstring. Instead, his best moments were only just beginning. He battled through extra time, making a number of good saves in the process, and his heroics in the shootout once again saw Croatia claim victory. He will be a big loss if he’s unavailable for the semi-final.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić wasn’t at his best against Denmark, but he proved that he doesn’t play consecutive bad games (or bad games at all, all things considered) with a brilliant performance. He worked hard and played plenty of incisive passes, and his set piece delivery was what gave Croatia a late lead.
3. Mário Fernandes (Russia)
It’s hard to imagine how Mário Fernandes is feeling right about now. He scored his first goal in Russian colours to give the hosts a lifeline, and then watched in horror as his missed penalty extinguished that hope. His elation and subsequent despair aside, Fernandes played a brilliant game at right-back. He got forward well, and he acquitted himself well defensively too.
4. Andrej Kramarić (Croatia)
Kramarić put Croatia back on track with his goal shortly before half time, and he justified his inclusion in the starting line-up with a strong performance. He created plenty of chances with his excellent positioning and ability to find the ball in the final third, and he could have easily added to his goal-scoring tally.
5. Denis Cheryshev (Russia)
Cheryshev has been in brilliant form since coming on as an early substitute in the opening match of the tournament, and he netted one of the best goals of this World Cup to put Russia ahead. He looked ominous when he found space on the break, and a fourth goal in five matches was a fitting reward for his efforts.

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