2018 FIFA World Cup Review

It’s all over. A brilliant World Cup filled with excitement has ended with France taking their second World Cup title as many of football’s traditional giants crashed out earlier than expected. A semi-final line-up without Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina was certainly unexpected, but the teams that came through in their place delivered plenty of excitement and some quality performances. England looked a rejuvenated side under Gareth Southgate, and Belgium’s best ever side looked very dangerous on their way to the final four. Croatia had a dream run through to the final, showing resolve, skill and plenty of verve as they slugged it out with the consistent French in the tournament’s decider. It was a tournament full of excitement, and plenty of good memories will come from it. This review will take a look at the tournament, with the players and teams that impressed and the teams whose campaigns fell flat.

Best Team: France

It’s not often that a team wins the trophy as comfortably as the French did. They only trailed their opponents at one point during the tournament, with Argentina leading them 2-1 for less than 10 minutes. France then scored three goals in about 10 minutes, and that finished the Argentinians off. Everyone played well, with scarily young players standing tall (19-year-old winger Kylian Mbappé was particularly impressive) and all of France’s proven performers delivering when they needed to. They scored first in every game they played, and they breezed past some very dangerous opponents on their way to the title.

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France celebrate after their World Cup final win over Croatia. The French were comfortably the best side at the tournament, and their march to the trophy was as comfortable as it gets.

Best Fairytale: Croatia

There wasn’t a clear cut fairytale side at this tournament, but there was no shortage of contenders. England, with their young talents and newfound enthusiasm, made it further than any English side in 28 years and captivated a nation in the process. Russia, with the public just hoping the hosts didn’t embarrass themselves, made it all the way to the quarter-finals and knocked out Spain along the way. Sweden made a quarter-final despite having little more than a good system and exemplary team spirit, and Japan defied expectations to nearly make the last eight in spite of a managerial change just two months out from the tournament. In the end, though, Croatia’s journey was more impressive. They had skill, but they needed all of their resilience to go the distance against Denmark, Russia and England, and the 4-2 scoreline of the final didn’t really do them justice. They fought right to the end, and they put in some remarkable efforts along the way.

Biggest Disappointment: Germany

There were plenty of sides who disappointed at this tournament. Portugal and Argentina, despite being powered by two of the world’s biggest stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, just scraped through to the round of 16 and found themselves exiting early. Spain were thrust into turmoil days out from the tournament when they sacked Julen Lopetegui, and they failed to fire amidst reports of division in the squad. Brazil were ominously solid in their first four games, but it all fell apart against the determined Belgians in the quarter-finals. In the end, however, all of these teams at least made the knockout stage. Germany didn’t. They looked uninterested and a shadow of the team which won the World Cup four years before, and they never really recovered from a shock opening defeat to Mexico. Their limp exit will have huge ramifications, as the Germans search for the reasons behind their dismal showing.

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South Korea’s players celebrate after upsetting Germany and eliminating them from the World Cup. Germany’s poor performance was unexpected, and it will have ramifications for the future.

Unluckiest Team: Morocco

There were plenty of teams who could be considered unlucky not to go further in this World Cup. Peru looked brilliant against Denmark, held their own against eventual champions France and beat Australia comfortably, and yet they couldn’t pass the group stage. In Group H, Senegal fell foul of the new fair play tiebreaker, thus squandering their chance to become the only African team to make it through. It was another African team, however, who were completely luckless. Morocco were the better team in all of their three games, but the Atlas Lions finished with just one point to show for it. They never took a backwards step, but a 95th minute own goal against Iran (who were also hard-done-by in the end) and a 1-0 loss to Portugal sealed their fate before the final game had been played. They were one of a few unlucky African sides, as none of the five CAF nations made it past the group stage.

Team of the Tournament

Picking the best combined team of the tournament was a difficult task. There were plenty of players who put in strong performances throughout the tournament, with plenty of attackers proving very difficult to separate. The team is picked in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and France’s dominance is reflected in the selection of six of their players in the side.

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Thibaut Courtois makes a diving save during Belgium’s quarter-final win over Brazil. Courtois won the golden glove for his performances as Belgium progressed to the semi-finals.

Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois is a classy player. It’s not often a goalkeeper can be described in such terms, but Courtois is no regular goalkeeper. His unflustered air allows him to move with incredible grace, and his extraordinary reach allows him to make difficult saves look incredibly easy. In the end, he was the best of the goalkeepers who featured in the tournament’s final stages, and although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel had brilliant tournaments neither of their sides made it far enough to warrant their selection.
Honourable mentions: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico) and Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

Right-back: Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
There were two standout right-backs at this tournament, with Meunier playing some brilliant football on Belgium’s right-flank and Kieran Trippier performing a similar role for England with plenty of skill. The two shone at all stages of the tournament, with Trippier’s set piece delivery becoming an integral part of England’s game plan and Meunier’s crosses from the right causing plenty of issues for opposing defences, but in the end the third-place play-off between the teams decided the selection issue in Meunier’s favour. Fresh after missing the semi-final against France (his loss was a massive one) Meunier scored a goal against the English and showcased his attacking and defensive qualities in a brilliant performance.
Honourable mention: Kieran Trippier (England)

Centre-backs: Raphaël Varane (France) and Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Much like the French, Varane got better as the tournament progressed, and he had a big hand in their success with his aerial strength and his ability to match the world’s top strikers. He even provided a threat at the other end, scoring a couple of very nice goals. Granqvist was even more important for Sweden. He picked up a couple of goals from the penalty spot, and he used his imposing physique to good effect in some dominant defensive performances, and he thoroughly deserves his spot in this side. Others could have easily won a spot, with Diego Godín holding Uruguay’s defence together and Swiss young gun Manuel Akanji playing with a composure that belied his lack of international experience, but neither were quite able to get a spot.
Honourable mentions: Diego Godín (Uruguay) and Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)

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Andreas Granqvist celebrates after scoring Sweden’s first goal against South Korea. Granqvist was the main man in Sweden’s defence, and he was the key reason for their success.

Left-back: Lucas Hernández (France)
Of all the positions, left-back was one of the hardest to pick due to a lack of strongly performing players in the position. Hernández, however, was consistent throughout and gave France plenty with his excellent all-round performances. He was able to push forward when required and he swung in some dangerous crosses, but his defensive work stood out. He was composed under pressure, displaying an ability to cleverly draw fouls when France were in need of a breather. He had no real competition, and deserves a spot in this team.
Honourable mention: Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)

Central midfielders: Paul Pogba (France) and N’Golo Kanté (France)
Pogba and Kanté’s brilliant midfield performances ensured both men basically picked themselves, and there wasn’t anyone who really came close to dislodging either. Kanté was brilliant despite an underwhelming effort in the final, and no other holding midfielder was able to exact his level of influence on matches. Alongside Pogba, who pushed forward well and managed to score a key goal in the final, Kanté led the best midfield duo in the tournament – by some distance. Paulinho was good for Brazil, and some, like Ivan Rakitić and Aleksandr Golovin, showed some skills, but Pogba and Kanté’s consistency was unmatched.
Honourable mentions: Paulinho (Brazil), Aleksandr Golovin (Russia) and Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)

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N’Golo Kanté (left) and Paul Pogba (centre) chase Belgian captain Eden Hazard during France’s semi-final win. Kanté and Pogba complemented each other perfectly, and their efforts were a key part of France’s success.

Right-wing: Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé was so good that he was the only possible winner of the award for best young player of the tournament, and he announced himself on the world stage with some breathtaking efforts. In two short bursts he brought Argentina to their knees, and he consistently made opposing defences nervous with his unbelievable pace and well-honed skills. He seemingly has it all, and his brilliant efforts allowed him to win a place in the team over all-action Croatian winger Ante Rebić. He already is a star, and at 19 it’s scary how good a player he could become.
Honourable mention: Ante Rebić (Croatia)

Attacking midfielder: Luka Modrić (Croatia, captain)
Modrić was a deserving winner of the golden ball for the tournament’s best player as he led Croatia to the final with his typically dependable performances. When he is in the zone, he can take a game by the scruff of the neck without anyone realising it, and his exceptional vision allowed Croatia’s talented attackers to thrive. Philippe Coutinho was brilliant in Brazil’s run to the last eight, but he was no match for Croatia’s captain and midfield star.
Honourable mention: Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)

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Luka Modrić (left) battles for the ball with Kylian Mbappé during the World Cup final. Modrić’s efforts in taking Croatia to the final earned him the golden ball, while Mbappé was the tournament’s best young player and burst onto the scene with some dynamic performances.

Left-wing: Antoine Griezmann (France)
There were plenty of dangerous wingers who could accompany Mbappé, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard playing well throughout, Russian winger Denis Cheryshev bursting onto the scene with some great performances and Croatia’s Ivan Perišić delivering massive efforts in the semi-finals and the final. In the end, however, the berth went to Griezmann. Griezmann didn’t actually play on the left-wing, instead starting centrally and drifting wherever he want, but he had a massive impact and he was simply too good to leave out.
Honourable mentions: Eden Hazard (Belgium), Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Ivan Perišić (Croatia)

Centre-forward: Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Cavani scored three goals in four matches at the tournament, sending Uruguay into the quarter-finals with two sublime goals against Portugal and then missing the match with a calf injury. The impact his loss had on Uruguay’s play showed just how important his hard work in both defence and attack was, and makes him a deserving leader of the line over the more prolific but less influential Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane. His effort was remarkable, and he brought plenty of class to Uruguay’s attack.
Honourable mention: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)

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France lift the trophy against enterprising Croatians

Lucas Hernández worked his way into space on the left wing. The French left-back had neatly broken away from his marker, and he followed up by picking out Kylian Mbappé on the edge of the area. Mbappé, with no other option, had a shot. It wasn’t the 19-year-old prodigy’s best effort, but it was well-directed and it slipped through Danijel Subašić’s slightly limp dive, all but confirming France’s status as the winners of the 2018 World Cup. With 25 minutes to go, Mbappé’s strike put France ahead 4-1. That moment, with Mbappé standing in his trademark cross-armed celebratory pose and teammates flooding in from all angles, was as good as it got for Les Bleus.

Things weren’t so rosy in the opening stages of the final. Croatia, playing like they had nothing to lose, took the early initiative, stringing together some nice passing moves and putting France under pressure without creating any concrete chances. Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić showed signs of their effortlessly brilliant passing, but they couldn’t turn it into anything more concrete. Ivan Perišić, the hero of Croatia’s historic semi-final defeat of England, was at his most menacing, making barnstorming runs and nearly creating something on a few occasions. Unfortunately for Croatia, nearly creating something on a few occasions wasn’t going to cut it against the clinical France.

Just under 20 minutes in, France got a chance and put it away. Antoine Greizmann drew a soft free-kick on the edge of the box, and he had the chance to curl the ball towards goal with his lethal left boot. His kick didn’t pick out one of France’s rapidly moving centre-backs, both of whom were scrambling to get a head on the ball, but it did clip big Croatian frontman Mario Mandžukić on the way through. The inadvertent deflection left Subašić with no time to react, and Croatia were on the back foot despite their control of general play.

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Ivan Perišić is mobbed by teammates after scoring Croatia’s first goal. Perišić’s equaliser put Croatia back in the game, and his handball a few minutes later ultimately took the game away from them.

If France had thought that their goal would be enough to seal the World Cup, they were wrong. Less than 10 minutes after Mandžukić’s own goal they were back on level terms, thanks to a screamer from Perišić. Modrić delivered the initial ball, finding Šime Vrsaljko on the extreme right side of the penalty area. Vrsaljko headed the ball back into the centre, where it fell on Mandžukić’s head and bobbed up for Lovren and sat up for Vida and was diverted towards Perišić. After it’s convoluted journey Perišić was closed down quickly, and he immediately realised that a right-footed shot would be closed down by the quick-thinking N’Golo Kanté. Instead of attempting the shot, he just tapped it into space. With his left, he unleashed a shot towards the bottom corner, unstoppably driving it past Hugo Lloris with tremendous force. It took a slight deflection from Raphaël Varane, but it wasn’t as if Lloris would have saved it without his centre-back’s tiny intervention.

Croatia kept pushing, playing with admirable spirit and plenty of enterprise. Then the video assistant referee got involved, and the Croatians were dealt a blow from which they never recovered. The VAR hadn’t been much of a factor in the knockout stages, with few incidents being referred and few controversies arising as a result. Now, in the biggest game of them all, it decided to rear its head once more. Blaise Matuidi was the intended recipient of a corner swung in towards the near post, and although he couldn’t force his flick-on header past Perišić’s hand. France claimed the handball was illegal, Croatia argued that it was unavoidable. In the end, the French view was the one taken by referee Néstor Pitana, a penalty was awarded and Griezmann coolly retook the lead from the spot.

Croatia came agonisingly close to levelling on a few occasions as the half drew to a close, but they could never quite find the deft touch they needed to put their chances away. Everything they did looked threatening, but nothing they did quite managed to test Lloris and France continued to clear the ball away shakily before regrouping to rebuff Croatia’s next attack. The pattern began to repeat itself as the second half began, with Croatia asserting their control over proceedings and France seemingly struggling to keep up. They had the occasional counter-attack, but they mostly turned the ball over in their own half and resigned themselves to Croatia’s relentless onslaught.

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Kylian Mbappé (in blue) runs at the Croatian defence. Mbappé’s pace gave the Croatians plenty of issues, and he managed to cap off a great tournament with the match-sealing goal.

Then Paul Pogba stepped up. Pogba had been quiet in midfield, unable to exert his usual attacking influence and barely even receiving the ball as his midfield partner, N’Golo Kanté, had an unprecedented off day. Kanté, the running, intercepting machine holding France together, was even substituted, a sure sign that things were not right. With France under increasing pressure, Pogba finally conjured up a moment of brilliance which put them two ahead, scoring in the laconic style that can make him so enrapturing when his form is good and so infuriating when it is bad. He started the move, passing the ball from inside his own half and finding the pacey Mbappé in plenty of space. Mbappé ran himself into a corner and sought to pull the ball back for Griezmann, who received it and passed it backwards, to Pogba. Pogba had run a fair distance to regain possession on the edge of the box, and he looked to finish it off with a hard-hit shot. The first effort was solidly blocked, but Croatia weren’t so lucky when the curling follow-up (hit from the same spot with his “weaker” left foot) nestled itself in the back of the net.

After going two ahead, France seemed to flick a switch. Blaise Matuidi’s cross found Olivier Giroud in the centre, and the big striker attempted a bicycle kick across goal which nearly found Griezmann. Then Mbappé scored, and France could finally bask in the knowledge that the World Cup was theirs. The win was slightly tarnished a few minutes later, when Lloris had delusions of grandeur, tried to dribble past Mandžukić and allowed the striker to tackle the ball into the back of the net. Croatia didn’t recover, or even look like recovering, but the gaffe forced France to retreat back into their shell and make absolutely sure of their second World Cup triumph.

After the final whistle, the French players ran around the field joyously, waving their little French flags and embracing whichever teammate was in sight. Eventually, after the pomp and ceremony of the hurriedly set up stage and presentation, they got to hold their coveted prize. The rain had begun to set in, and the visiting dignitaries were quickly shielded by umbrellas, but the weather couldn’t dampen France’s celebrations as they lifted the trophy aloft and celebrated with pure, unadulterated joy. In quieter moments, they may reflect that Croatia controlled possession and territory, were the better side for much of the match and could have easily won the match. As the French revelled in their triumph such nuanced analysis of the match couldn’t have been further from their minds.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
France 4 (Mandžukić 19 og, Griezmann 38 pen, Pogba 59, Mbappé 65)
Croatia 2 (Perišić 28, Mandžukić 69)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté (N’Zonzi 55); Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (Tolisso 73); Giroud (Fekir 81).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pjaca 82); Rakitić, Brozović; Rebić (Kramarić 71), Modrić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

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Antoine Griezmann celebrates with the World Cup trophy after France’s win. Griezmann had a hand in three of France’s four goals in a strong attacking performance.

Top 5
1. Antoine Griezmann (France)
With a goal, an assist and an assist to an own goal (Mandžukić may have provided the deflection, but Griezmann did most of the work) Griezmann capped off his World Cup with a strong performance. He built into the game as it went on, and he had a big impact working into small pockets of space.
2. Ivan Perišić (Croatia)
Perišić was in good form from the start, displaying his usually brash run down the left wing and putting plenty of pressure on the French. After a brilliant semi-final effort, he backed it up with a stunning leveller and some very dangerous attacking play. He conceded an unlucky penalty, but that moment shouldn’t detract from a great effort.
3. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
With player of the tournament Modrić struggling to have his usual impact, Rakitić stepped up and began to replicate his captain’s exploits. With the occasional cross-field pass, the occasional through ball and the occasional nice-looking dribble Rakitić managed to create some of Croatia’s best chances, and he can hold his head high.
4. Kylian Mbappé (France)
Mbappé’s breakout tournament finished on a suitably high note, with the young gun scoring a goal and capping off his night by being named best young player of the World Cup (if there was any competition). His speed was on display, and he badgered the Croatian defence on a few occasions before he finally broke through.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba’s final looked set to be a disappointment on an individual level. Approaching the end of the first hour, he had been largely anonymous as France were besieged by the confident Croatians. Then he found a window of opportunity, and he exploited it with incredible poise and stunning skill. His goal firmly tilted the match back in France’s favour, and it allowed him to regain some of his touch.

2018 World Cup Final Preview – France vs Croatia

It all comes down to this. Just 90 minutes (or 120, if Croatia’s form holds) of football remains in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and the tournament’s last match promises to be a thriller. On one side, France are looking to add to their 1998 triumph, and their consistency has ensured they go in as favourites. Then there’s Croatia. They have needed extra time to see off all of their knockout stage opponents, and they have overcome situations in which lesser sides would have wilted. Now, in pursuit of their first World Cup title, Croatia have a side with incredible resolve and plenty of talent, and they could easily knock off the dangerous French. Whatever the outcome, this one should provide plenty of excitement.

Form Guide

France
Group Stage
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Behich 81 og), Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
France 1 (Mbappé 34), Peru 0
Denmark 0, France 0
Round of 16
France 4 (Griezmann 13 pen, Pavard 57, Mbappé 64, 68), Argentina 3 (Di María 41, Mercado 48, Agüero 90+3)
Quarter-Finals
Uruguay 0, France 2 (Varane 40, Griezmann 61)
Semi-Finals
France 1 (Umtiti 51), Belgium 0

Croatia
Group Stage
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen), Nigeria 0
Argentina 0, Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Iceland 1 (G Sigurðsson 76 pen), Croatia 2 (Badelj 53, Perišić 90)
Round of 16
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4), Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Quarter-Finals
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115), Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)
Semi-Finals
Croatia 2 (Perišić 68, Mandžukić 109), England 1 (Trippier 5) (a.e.t)

Game Plan

France have only made minor strategic adjustments over the course of this tournament, and Didier Deschamps isn’t the kind of coach to make wholesale changes before such a big match. The defence of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, centre-backs Samuel Umtiti and Raphaël Varane and full-backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández has grown into this tournament, and France will rely on their continued solidity. In midfield, brash midfield enforcer Paul Pogba and unassuming defensive foil N’Golo Kanté complement each other perfectly, and the front three of Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé is sure to give Croatia’s defence plenty of problems.

Zlatko Dalić is not likely to change Croatia’s shape for the match, but he may have to make some changes in light of Croatia’s increasing injury toll. Left-back Ivan Strinić and semi-final hero Ivan Perišić have been added to the burgeoning injury list, but given Croatia’s record at this tournament (three players carried injuries into their semi-final) it seems likely that they will attempt to play through the pain. Croatia will attempt to control possession against the French, and they will be relying on star midfielders Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić to play the ball through the French defence. Either Marcelo Brozović or Andrej Kramarić will join the pair in the middle, with Brozović representing a more defensive option and Kramarić providing an extra attacker alongside Perišić, Ante Rebić and Mario Mandžukić. The identity of the third member of the midfield trio will give a clear indication of Croatia’s approach to the match.

Key Questions

1. Can Croatia survive another extra time?
Croatia’s players have shown remarkable mental and physical endurance on their way to the final, but three marathon matches in a row have taken their toll. With plenty of injuries and shorter turnarounds than their opponents, another extra time may just push them over the edge. The French are sure to be fresher, having won all their knockout matches in 90 minutes and having progressed with little fuss, and it will be up to Croatia’s leaders to ensure that they are able to hold on should the game go the distance. Of course, the same things were said about Croatia before their semi-final, so they can’t be written off.
2. Who will win the midfield?
The midfield battle may be the most crucial aspect of this game. France’s midfield is strong, with Kanté and Pogba complementing each other well and providing defensive solidity and attacking flair. For the first time in this tournament, however, they will clash with a midfield that is possibly their equal. Modrić and Rakitić are experienced campaigners, and if both of them fire there could be plenty of trouble for the French. Kanté may be jokingly renowned for his apparent ability to be in two places at once, but if the Croatian midfield is on song it may be too great a task for France’s holding midfielder. The team that claims the upper hand in midfield will go a long way to winning the game.
3. Can Croatia handle France’s pace?
England may have looked toothless for large periods of their semi-final clash with Croatia, but they did come close to exposing Croatia’s potential Achilles heel: their ability to handle quick attackers. On a few occasions Raheem Sterling threatened to break through, and it will be interesting to see whether the similarly rapid Mbappé gives Croatia similar problems. Mbappé demonstrated his ability to expose defences with a barnstorming performance against Argentina, and if he or Griezmann manage to find space on the break Croatia could find themselves in serious trouble.

Key Players

Kylian Mbappé seemingly has it all. He has an eye for goal, an incredible turn of speed and an exquisite first touch which belies his dynamism with the ball at his feet. He’s also only 19. Mbappé’s rare combination of speed, smarts and skill has made him the ideal counter-attacking weapon for the French at this tournament, and he will have a chance of seriously testing the Croatian defence with his many talents. If he can fire on the biggest stage of his budding career then he has the potential to take France to the trophy. He is France’s x-factor, and in conjunction with Griezmann he can really test Croatia out.

Luka Modrić is Croatia’s star, but Ivan Rakitić will be just as critical to Croatia’s fortunes. Rakitić was in brilliant form as the tournament began, but his form has waned in the knockouts and Croatia will need him to complement Modrić’s extraordinary vision if they are to break down a French defence which has already seen off some of the world’s most dynamic attacks. Rakitić can step up his game, and if he does Croatia will be very difficult to beat. Whether he will find that next level, however, is another question entirely.

Teams

France have no injury worries after their semi-final win over Belgium, and they are not likely to alter their starting line-up from that match. They are mostly in form, and the settled nature of their side makes them a dangerous opponent.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud.

Strinić and Perišić are both in doubt, but Croatia have been able to get players over the line all tournament and it would be no surprise if those two were available. Of the pair, Strinić may be the least likely to play thanks to the dangers of playing a half-fit defender against Mbappé and the fact that Josip Pivarić provides a like-for-like replacement. The other question is whether Brozović or Kramarić will get to start. Brozović started against the English, but Dalić may decide a more attacking presence is necessary against France’s solid defence and it will be no surprise if Kramarić comes in.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Pivarić; Modrić, Rakitić; Rebić, Kramarić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

Prediction

Both teams have plenty of big game experience and undeniable quality, and neither is likely to wilt under the pressure of a World Cup final. Croatia are likely to control the majority of possession, but France have been the more consistent side throughout and their favouritism in this final is well-deserved. Croatia have shown plenty of fight during the knockout stages, and they are a very good chance of causing an upset, but France’s all-round quality should be enough to get them over the line. France 2-1.

Croatia seal historic extra time win over tamed Lions

After 124 minutes of end-to-end drama, one free-kick was all that stood between Croatia and a historic victory. Marcus Rashford, having come on as a late substitute, stood over the ball preparing to deliver the free-kick that had the potential to make or break England’s deep World Cup run buoyed by their youthful exuberance. Normally Kieran Trippier would have delivered the kick, but he was sitting on the bench having picked up an injury which reduced the substitute-less English to ten men in the dying moments. The ball went into the box, and Croatian centre-back Dejan Lovren rose to head the ball away. It was over, and Croatia’s bench rushed onto the field, making no effort to hide their euphoria.

It started well for England, who came into the game full of confidence after a dream run through the tournament. The Three Lions had the lead within five minutes, courtesy of a perfect free-kick. The chance was created when Dele Alli was brought down on the edge of the area, and Trippier had the chance to shoot from a dangerous position. He made no mistake, curling the ball over Croatia’s wall and burying it in the top corner. It was an emphatic finish despite the class and finesse required to place the ball with such precision, and Danijel Subašić couldn’t get near it.

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Kieran Trippier (left) curls in the opening goal from a free-kick. The goal came within five minutes of kick-off, and it got England off to an ideal start.

Croatia had come from behind in their previous two matches, but those games had a different feel. Against a confident English side, Croatia didn’t look like drawing level in the moments that followed the goal. Instead, they only looked like falling further behind. Croatia survived against the danger posed by England’s prowess at corners, but they were obviously troubled by Raheem Sterling’s pace and their attacking play was riddled with incautious errors. Eventually, they began to work into the match, with star playmaker Luka Modrić looking particularly dangerous, but they never quite got to the point of seriously testing Jordan Pickford in the English goal.

The game began to open up as both sides settled into the match. Somehow, England didn’t score again just before the half hour when they broke through the Croatian defence with a surgically precise passing move. The move left Harry Kane facing off with Subašić in a position from which England’s captain has scored plenty of goals. His shot was saved, and his follow-up effort was hit into the post from an acute angle before rebounding against Subašić’s knee and floating across the face of goal. Croatia barely survived.

At the other end, Modrić, Šime Vrsaljko and Ante Rebić combined to create problems for England, but Rebić’s cross from the right wing was deflected away and his follow-up shot was easily stopped by Jordan Pickford. A good sliding challenge from Ashley Young saved England moments later as Ivan Perišić’s ball managed to slip past the English back three. Rebić was in position to capitalise, but the English wing-back just diverted the ball away and the corner was harmlessly dealt with. A few minutes later, Alli won the ball on the edge of the box, drew the defence in by standing completely still and gave Jesse Lingard a chance to shoot. He missed.

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Ivan Perišić wheels away in celebration as England’s defence try to make sense of Croatia’s opening goal. The equaliser allowed Croatia to get back into their game, and it drove them to deliver some of their best football of the tournament.

Croatia had some more chances as the half wound down, and Dejan Lovren’s clash with Harry Maguire in the box could have led to a penalty on the stroke of half time, but Croatia didn’t really seem like scoring. They had more of the ball in the early stages of the second half, but the spark was missing from their play. Passes were misplaced, and their most promising moves broke down in the decisive moments. They needed some kind of cutting edge against an English side that was looking increasingly comfortable. They needed a hero.

They got one. It wasn’t Modrić, or main striker Mario Mandžukić, or key midfielder Ivan Rakitić. It was Perišić. Vrsaljko provided the cross, receiving the ball in space and whipping it in towards the back post. The dynamic winger did the rest. Perišić timed his run to perfection, slipping past Trippier and approaching the unsuspecting Kyle Walker from behind. Walker dived forwards in an attempt to clear the ball, oblivious to the presence of a dangerous attacker behind him. The only indication of Perišić’s presence he received came when a leg was wrapped around him and the ball was raked into the back of the net. Croatia celebrated wildly, but Perišić wasn’t done just yet.

Soon after, he nearly shed tears of exasperation after missing a golden opportunity to hand Croatia the lead. Perišić pounced as Pickford and his defenders confusedly cleared a long ball, and he found the space to run into the box and fire off an unstoppable shot as Pickford scrambled back into position. Unfortunately for Croatia, the shot hit the post and bounced out, and England managed to survive. Perišić didn’t relent, however, and soon Croatia’s play had gone to another level. Modrić had been good, but suddenly he was calling the shots and making England’s midfield look completely inadequate. Rebić and Mandžukić were providing support, and the team was suddenly working like the well-oiled machine they had been in the tournament’s early stages. England had chances, but they weren’t looking like scoring.

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Mario Mandžukić (centre) gives Croatia the lead in the second half of extra time with a nice finish. It was the most important goal ever scored in Croatia’s footballing history, and it allowed them to reach the final for the first time.

Both sides sparred in the final stages of normal time, but neither could quite find the opening they needed to settle the match in their favour. For the third match in succession, Croatia were going to extra time, and a third consecutive penalty shootout was on the cards. The English started the extra period brightly, and they looked to have scored when John Stones’ header beat Subašić. Vrsaljko acted quickly to clear the ball off the line, and Croatia began to push in the other direction. Perišić bobbed up again to feed Mandžukić’s dangerous run as the first half of extra time drew to a close, drawing Pickford into a brilliant close range save. It was a sign of things to come.

Perišić found Mandžukić again a few minutes after play resumed for the last time, and the consequences were devastating. Josip Pivarić’s cross into the box was cleared by Walker, but he was only able to parry it to the edge of the area. Perišić and Trippier awaited the ball’s arrival, and Perišić’s height won out as he rose above the diminutive wing-back and headed the ball into the open space around the six-yard box. None of this would have been too harmful had it not been for Stones. The centre-back was caught napping by Mandžukić, and his belated response was not going to atone for his catastrophic loss of concentration while at the wheel. Croatia’s frontman slammed the ball past Pickford’s dive, and Croatia were through. Photographers were kissed as a huge and joyous scrum formed, and Croatia had one foot in the final.

They managed to hold on. The Croatians professionally ran down the clock, even managing to mount some dangerous counter-attacks as Trippier’s injury left England a man down and dangerously exposed. Rashford’s free-kick was the last roll of the dice, and England’s hopes were extinguished as the attack was snuffed out emphatically. England are still young, and they may well push for the title again four years from now, but four years is a long time. They may not get a better chance to lift the trophy that has proved so elusive in the last 50 years. For Croatia, a date with France, their semi-final opponents in 1998, awaits. They have already eclipsed the famous team of 20 years ago, and the final will give them another chance to make history. They have the players to do it.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Croatia 2 (Perišić 68, Mandžukić 109)
England 1 (Trippier 5) (a.e.t)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Tur)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 95); Rakitić, Brozović; Rebić (Kramarić 101), Modrić (Badelj 119), Perišić; Mandžukić (Ćorluka 115).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker (Vardy 112), Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli, Henderson (Dier 97), Lingard, Young (Rose 91); Sterling (Rashford 74), Kane.

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Ivan Perišić reacts after the final whistle. Perišić stood up with the game on the line, scoring and providing an assist in Croatia’s historic victory.

Top 5
1. Ivan Perišić (Croatia)
When Croatia needed someone to break the game open, Perišić stepped up. His smart positioning allowed him to capitalise on Vrsaljko’s dangerous ball into the box, and he continued to break the English defence open with a series of dangerous runs and incisive passes. is HHis assist for Mandžukić’s extra time winner was a fitting way to cap off a devastating performance.
2. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Perišić was the cutting edge that finally allowed Croatia to realise their potential and beat the English, but Modrić was the man pulling the strings. Croatia’s captain showed his experience with a masterful midfield display which put England on the back foot and allowed Croatia’s talent to shine through.
3. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s brilliant individual tournament ended rather unsatisfactorily, with the wing-back sitting on the bench as his team slumped to a heartbreaking defeat. He was, however, the man who put them in the box seat with a brilliant free-kick, and his performance was a good one until it was cruelly curtailed.
4. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
England had looked solid in their previous matches, but Mandžukić highlighted their lack of defensive experience with some wily runs and clever forward play. His winning goal will go down in Croatian footballing history, and it capped off a great performance in which he used his skills to good effect and combined perfectly with his attacking teammates.
5. Šime Vrsaljko (Croatia)
Vrsaljko wasn’t expected to feature in the semi-final after injuring himself during Croatia’s quarter-final clash with Russia, but he managed to get up for the game and he showed that he is an important part of Croatia’s success. He assisted the first goal, and he managed to push up the field and joining to the attack while making some key defensive contributions.

2018 FIFA World Cup Semi-Final Preview – Croatia vs England

Croatia vs England

Form Guide

Croatia
Group Stage
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen), Nigeria 0
Argentina 0, Croatia 3 (Rebić 53, Modrić 80, Rakitić 90+1)
Iceland 1 (Sigurðsson 76 pen), Croatia 2 (Badelj 53, Perišić 90)
Round of 16
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4), Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Quarter-Finals
Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31, Mário Fernandes 115), Croatia 2 (Kramarić 39, Vida 101) (a.e.t, Croatia won 4-3 on penalties)

England
Group Stage
Tunisia 1 (Sassi 35 pen), England 2 (Kane 11, 90+1)
England 6 (Stones 8, 40, Kane 22 pen, 45+1 pen, 62, Lingard 36), Panama 1 (Baloy 78)
England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51)
Round of 16
Colombia 1 (Mina 90+3), England 1 (Kane 57 pen) (a.e.t, England won 4-3 on penalties)
Quarter-Finals
Sweden 0, England 2 (Maguire 30, Alli 59)

Game Plan

Croatia have kept the same system in all of their games, and although they have some injury concerns Zlatko Dalić is unlikely to change his 4-2-3-1 formation. With the team unlikely to change too much ahead of Croatia’s biggest game for 20 years, Dalić can focus on getting the best out of his players, who haven’t quite found their rhythm in two long and tiring penalty shootout victories. They have fought very hard, and there were positive signs in their win over Russia. Luka Modrić looked good in a deep midfield role, and Croatia’s front four of Ivan Perišić, Mario Mandžukić, Ante Rebić and Andrej Kramarić is very dangerous. Dalić’s biggest concern going in will be injuries to his defence, and Croatia may look to dominate possession to keep England out of the game. They have the talent, and if their high-level European players stand up they will have a very good chance of victory.

Like their opponents, the English haven’t made any changes to their system throughout the tournament. Gareth Southgate’s side is full of confidence, and their approach is based on pace and physicality. Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard are England’s key threats in open play, and both will look to slip in behind the Croatian defence. Then there’s England’s second, and more potent, threat: set pieces. Kieran Trippier has been brilliant, and his delivery (as well as Ashley Young’s) has been dangerous all tournament. Harry Maguire, John Stones and Harry Kane are rarely beaten in the air, and most of England’s goals at this tournament have come from corners, free-kicks or penalties derived from corners or free-kicks. Kane has profited from the penalty situation, and although England’s captain leads all scorers at this tournament he is yet to find his best form. If he can do that, England will be tough to beat. With a solid three-man defence of Kyle Walker, Stones and Maguire and a talented midfield of Lingard, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli, the English are a well-rounded side who can do some damage.

Key Questions

1. Who will feature in the Croatian defence?
Croatia’s gutsy quarter-final victory over Russia could have come at a heavy cost. Šime Vrsaljko is unlikely to take his place in the team, and goalkeeper Danijel Subašić is also doubtful after playing through a hamstring injury and saving a penalty in the shootout. With Dejan Lovren coming in under an injury cloud, there’s a chance that Croatia could go into the match with three significant defensive changes. Against a dangerous English attack with the all-round quality of Kane and the pace of Sterling and Lingard, this defensive upheaval could cost Croatia their place in the competition.
2. Can England go all the way?
The obvious answer to this question is yes. In the final four, and with a good chance of eliminating the Croatians, the English have the ability to win this tournament. Despite their success, however, it remains unclear how well they’ve played. Much of the support for the theory that England can win it all comes from the fact that they ended up in the softer side of the draw, avoiding powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France and Belgium. The flip side of this, however, is that the English are yet to prove themselves against top-level opposition. They did play Belgium in the group stage, but it’s worth noting that neither side was at full strength (and England’s reserves lost in a very dull match). In the knockouts, they played a Colombian side who made themselves too angry to play with any fluency and a Swedish team that, while disciplined, didn’t provide too much of a test. Croatia are different. They’re spirited, and very dangerous, and this game will give a good indication of whether England have the quality to beat the French should they go through.
3. Will fatigue be a factor?
Croatia and England couldn’t have had more different quarter-final wins. While England swept Sweden aside with contemptuous ease, Croatia battled hard and eventually eliminated Russia in a 120-minute slugfest and penalty shootout. Croatia come into this match off two shootout wins, and aside from the injury toll of their win over Russia they are not likely to be as mentally fresh as their opponents. It’s worth noting that England did go through a shootout of their own against Colombia, but it’s likely that they will have recovered from that difficult game and their preparation for this match will have been helped by their comfortable quarter-final victory. If Croatia can’t recover physically or mentally victory will be very difficult to achieve.

Key Players

Luka Modrić has been central to Croatia’s hopes since his international debut in 2006, and he is still at the centre of their success 12 years on. He dictates the tempo of the game, he rarely makes a mistake and he is capable of playing a killer ball which can unlock a defence in a second. Complemented by the brilliance of Ivan Rakitić and the work of his dangerous attack, Modrić is the man England need to stop if they are going to progress to their first World Cup decider since 1966. The midfield is shaping as a key battleground, and if Modrić can take control in the centre then Croatia will go a long way to winning this match.

Raheem Sterling has all the weapons. He’s quick, he has good skills and he can threaten in wide areas and in the centre. He should be the kind of player who can breach any defence. Somehow, he can’t. Despite his best efforts, he hasn’t been able to add to his meagre tally of two international goals at this tournament, and he will be desperate to change that against Croatia. He has found himself in so many brilliant positions that his place is not under threat, and a goal in the semi-final could make all the questions about his performance for England go away.

Teams

Croatia’s front six is likely stay the same, with Kramarić excelling in the quarter-final after replacing Marcelo Brozović and the rest of the attack performing well. The defence, however, is a different question. Vrsaljko seems unlikely to start, and Domagoj Vida is likely to shift to the right of defence with Vedran Ćorluka set to take his place. Lovren should start, although should he fail to make it Duje Ćaleta-Car would come in to partner Ćorluka in central defence. The other question surrounds Subašić, who is in more serious doubt than Lovren. If the goalkeeper doesn’t start then Lovre Kalinić would be the most likely replacement, although Subašić’s form means that Dalić will be very unlikely to make a change unless the injury is very serious.
Possible Team (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vida, Lovren, Ćorluka, Strinić; Modrić, Rakitić; Rebić, Kramarić, Perišić; Mandžukić.

Unlike their opponents, England have few selection worries. It would be surprising if Southgate was to tweak his side given his players’ performance against Sweden and the efficiency of his 3-5-2 formation throughout the tournament.
Possible Team (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Lingard, Henderson, Alli, Young; Kane, Sterling.

Prediction

This game could be a very even contest, and the possibility of extra time and penalties is a very real one. Both sides have quality, and although Croatia are probably the more talented side they may struggle due to the settled nature of England’s team and the fatigue of two long and arduous knockout games. The deeper the game goes the better England’s chances will be due to their greater physical and mental freshness, but Croatia’s resolve to reach this point shouldn’t be underestimated and they are a very good chance of winning. England 2-1 (a.e.t).

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.

Subašić finally trumps Schmeichel as Croatia finally trump Denmark

Croatia entered their clash with Denmark on a high. Having won all three of their group stage matches at a canter, they had slotted into the easy side of the draw. With plenty of quality and a relatively simple path to the final made easier by Russia’s upset win over Spain hours earlier, Croatia had reason to be confident. Denmark, whose progress to the round of 16 was solid rather than spectacular, were expected to provide a test, but the Croatians seemed good enough to progress without too much trouble. Eventually, they did progress – with the last penalty of a drama-filled shootout.

Denmark couldn’t have started better. Just 58 seconds after kick-off, the ball was in the back of the net, courtesy of a long throw-in. Jonas Knudsen hurled the ball a remarkable distance after Denmark won the throw on the right, and the Croatians didn’t know what to do. The ball slipped over the back to Mathias Jørgensen, whose hastily scrambled shot rebounded off Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subašić and the post before going in. A team with star players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool and Atlético Madrid had been undone by a remarkably long heave from Ipswich Town’s left-back. It wasn’t the prettiest way to score a goal, but the throw was a brutally effective means of breaking down Croatia’s defence.

Denmark’s lead didn’t last long. To be precise, it lasted all of one minute and 52 seconds. Šime Vrsaljko found space on the right, and played a fairly routine ball into the box. It should have been cleared easily by Henrik Dalsgaard, who found the ball at his feet with no opponents around. Instead, he firmly planted the ball into the face of teammate Andreas Christensen, and the ball bounced kindly for Mario Mandžukić in the box. The big striker had little problem putting the chance away from close range, and suddenly the game was back on level terms. In less than four minutes, both sides had scored, and the frenetic beginning suggested that an exciting match was in the offing.

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Mario Mandžukić (front) and Mathias Jørgensen battle for the ball in the air. Both men scored their team’s only goals, both of which came in the opening five minutes of the match.

Then neither side scored for the rest of the match. Unsurprisingly, things started to settle down after the frenetic beginning. Croatia seemed to take control of possession, and they began to find the better chances. Ante Rebić was fouled on the edge of the area, but Ivan Perišić’s free-kick was drilled into the wall and away for a corner. Perišić’s dangerous cross caused more problems for Denmark as Knudsen and Mandžukić tussled in the box and the striker appealed for a penalty. Néstor Pitana, the intense-looking Argentinian referee, was unmoved, telling Mandžukić in no uncertain terms that he had not been fouled and that he should get up. Rebić forced Kasper Schmeichel to parry his shot from close range, and Perišić bungled a golden opportunity when his second-chance shot thudded harmlessly into the turf and didn’t even reach the six-yard box. Dejan Lovren connected with Luka Modrić’s free-kick, but his header didn’t have enough on it and it flew wide of its mark. As the game progressed, however, Croatia’s opportunities began to dry up against Denmark’s well-drilled defence.

Denmark had some opportunities, particularly in the second half, but they didn’t have the clinical touch in attack to trouble Croatia. Martin Braithwaite had – and missed – most of their best chances. Early on, he went one-on-one with Subašić, but the Croatian keeper saved his shot well. Then the ball kicked up into his face and trailed away for a goal-kick. Yussuf Poulsen created a chance for him in the centre, but Braithwaite blasted the shot a long way wide. Thomas Delaney ran straight through the heart of the Croatian defence, and then completed his seemingly endless run with a pass for Braithwaite. Braithwaite missed. There were other chances, like when Danish star Christian Eriksen hit the bar (it never really looked like testing Subašić) and when Nicolai Jørgensen forced Subašić into a save from a decent position, but Denmark weren’t really worrying the Croatians.

In the last 10 minutes of normal time, Croatia began to step up their game. Perišić headed the ball onto the roof of the net, and Rebić made a couple of dangerous runs down the right after Perišić’s quickly-taken throw-in caught Denmark unawares and heralded a short period of goalmouth action. It passed, however, and there was no goal in the first 90 minutes. The Danish started extra time well, putting Croatia under pressure with a series of Knudsen’s gigantic throws and some good attacks. Domagoj Vida was a little hasty in coming out of position, and Denmark threatened as Eriksen perfectly threaded the ball through the gap he left in the defensive line. Knudsen won a corner with some good work down the left, and Denmark continued to threaten, but they couldn’t break through.

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Luka Modrić reacts with relief after scoring during the penalty shootout. Modrić had a golden opportunity to win it for Croatia in the final minutes of extra time, but Kasper Schmeichel managed to save his penalty.

Then Modrić began to get involved. Croatia’s star created a brilliant chance out of nothing with a beautiful ball for Andrej Kramarić, but Denmark survived as Schmeichel tapped a potentially dangerous cross over the bar. Then Modrić produced another moment of inspiration which seemingly confirmed Croatia’s victory. Upon receiving the ball in midfield, he threaded a delightful pass through the heart of the Danish defence, putting Rebić one-on-one with Schemichel. At pace, Rebić rounded Schmeichel on the edge of the box, and all that was left to do was slot the ball into an open net. He didn’t get the chance as Mathias Jørgensen slid in from behind, conceding the penalty and putting his further participation in the match in serious doubt. Mercifully, he was only booked by Pitana, but Modrić was almost certain to score. He didn’t. Schmeichel dived the right way and clutched the ball gratefully, and the game was destined for penalties. Schmeichel was brimming with confidence, and Denmark seemed to have the upper-hand as Eriksen stepped up to take the first kick of the shootout.

Enter Subašić. Eriksen’s penalty was saved by the Croatian goalkeeper, who flung himself the right way, diverted the ball into the post, and celebrated with understandable gusto. Croatia had the edge. Then Schmeichel, determined to match his counterpart, denied Milan Badelj with his feet. The teams were back level. Finally, with the fourth penalty taken in the match, Simon Kjær scored. He drilled an unstoppable shot into the top corner, and the goalkeepers’ desperate attempts to one-up each other proceeded to take the back seat as the shootout began to follow a more familiar pattern. Kramarić scored, and Schmeichel was warned for coming off his line before the kick was taken. Michael Krohn-Dehli scored. For once, Modrić looked unsure of himself, and nervous. He scored anyway, going straight down the middle and only just eluding Schmeichel’s feet before trotting away relieved.

Then Subašić made another save. Lasse Schöne took the kick, drilling it to the left and watching as it was emphatically parried by the diving goalkeeper. Once again, Croatia had the ascendency as Josip Pivarić prepared to take his penalty. Unfortunately for Croatia, anything Subašić could do, Schmeichel could seemingly do better. Pivarić took a long run up, taking a few sidesteps and running at the ball with some aggression. Schmeichel was unperturbed, and made the save. The battle of the two goalkeepers was back on, and the penalty-takers were becoming increasingly nervous. Subašić did it again. Brimming with confidence, he denied Nicolai Jørgensen with his feet. Croatia just needed to score to win, with Rakitić entrusted with the crucial kick. Unlike so many before him, he made no error. Relief washed over Croatia as they ensured they would not become the next highly-rated team to fall by the wayside, and booked a date with the hosts in Sochi. Their performance was shaky, and probably their worst of the tournament thus far, but it was a win. The fact that they’re still in the competition means that the drama, tension and the very late night was worth it.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Croatia 1 (Mandžukić 4)
Denmark 1 (M Jørgensen 1) (a.e.t, Croatia won 3-2 on penalties)
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić (Pivarić 81); Rakitić, Brozović (Kovačić 71); Rebić, Modrić, Perišić (Kramarić 97); Mandžukić (Badelj 108).
Denmark (4-3-3): Schmeichel – Dalsgaard, Kjær, M Jørgensen, Knudsen; Christensen (Schöne 46), Delaney (Krohn-Dehli 98), Eriksen; Poulsen, Cornelius (N Jørgensen 66), Braithwaite (Sisto 106).

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Luka Modrić and Danijel Subašić celebrate after Croatia’s victory. Subašić played a key role in the shootout with three penalty saves.

Top 5
1. Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)
Schmeichel made all of the saves he had to in general play, and then went to a whole new level as the match was drawing to a close. He saved Modrić’s penalty to ensure the game went to a shootout, and he kept Denmark in the shootout by making a couple of excellent saves. At times, he looked unbeatable.
2. Danijel Subašić (Croatia)
Subašić had a quieter game than his opposite number, and then proceeded to win Croatia the game with his penalty shootout heroics. He made three saves from five Danish penalties, and his efforts were eventually enough for Croatia to come away with the win. He will take massive confidence from some of his penalty stops.
3. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić is having a brilliant individual tournament, and the dynamic winger continued to feature prominently with his all-action approach. Mathias Jørgensen’s foul from behind was all that stopped him from putting away a late winner, and he made a number of dangerous runs from both wings and through the middle.
4. Thomas Delaney (Denmark)
Delaney used his physicality to good effect, making his presence felt against Croatia’s star-studded midfield and providing an attacking threat with his dangerous forward runs. One such run took him well in the area, and his slightly inadvertent assist for Denmark’s only goal showed his attacking threat.
5. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić showed his cool temperament when he calmly slotted the winning penalty, and he stood up to fill the void when Modrić had a quiet game (an event which may never occur again). He seemed to take on the majority of Croatia’s playmaking duties, and he created some decent opportunities with his excellent passing.