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.

Green Falcons winged as Russia romp to victory

The game was over, and had been for a long time, when the free-kick was paid. Saudi Arabia’s Taisir Al-Jassim was just a little rough with Aleksandr Golovin on the edge of the box, and as a result Russia’s bright young star was standing over the ball to take the last kick of the game. With it, he nonchalantly unleashed a devilish free-kick which evaded the wall, beat a desperate Abdullah Al-Mayouf and lodged itself in the top corner. It was Russia’s second goal in stoppage time alone, and was a fitting way to end a dominant, if scarcely believable, 5-0 win. There were doubts about Russia going into this tournament. In front of a parochial home crowd, they showed that they can be a force to be reckoned with.

The signs were there from the start. Saudi Arabia looked strong when they got through Russia’s effective midfield press. Unfortunately for them, such moves were few and far between, with most resulting in turnovers and leaving them vulnerable on the counter. Russia looked more clinical, and from the start they looked ready to do some damage. Soon it was a matter of when, not if, the hosts would score.

It took them just under 12 minutes. Yuri Zhirkov’s dangerous corner to the front post was cleared well, but it only went as far as Golovin, who cleverly found himself in acres of space. Golovin’s subsequent delivery was perfect, landing on the head of an unmarked Yury Gazinsky and leaving the Saudis helpless. The header was directed towards the bottom corner, and Al-Mayouf didn’t stand a chance. It wasn’t going to get any better.

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Denis Cheryshev (in red) scores Russia’s second goal as Omar Hawsawi (left), Mohammed Al-Breik (right) and Abdullah Otayf (centre) watch on. Cheryshev scored twice for the Russians, providing incisive run from the left wing.

If the Saudis were hoping for some respite after going behind early they didn’t get it. Instead, Russia rammed home their advantage, continuing to press the Saudis in midfield and continuing to hit them with dangerous attacks starting in their forward half. For their part, the Green Falcons aided and abetted their opponents with their shocking play in the middle. Their touch was barbaric, and there was always a Russian midfielder ready to seize on their errors. Up front, Mohammed Al-Sahlawi was a lonely figure, often launching an ineffective one-man press on the Russian defenders. He was so ineffectual that no-one would have noticed had he not been there.

Meanwhile, captain Osama Hawsawi had his hands full cleaning up after his teammates. The experienced defender showed his quality, and it seemed as if the Saudis had weathered the storm. Then, minutes before the half, they conceded again. Predictably, it came from a mistake, made by Osama’s namesake and defensive partner Omar. A heavy touch caught the Green Falcons out, and soon Denis Cheryshev – an early substitute for the injured Alan Dzagoev – had some space in the box. What happened next was comical. Cheryshev just stopped, showing exemplary control, and merely watched as not one but two Saudi defenders slid straight past him expecting the shot. Having dealt with them, he promptly slammed it into the top corner.

Saudi Arabia began to settle into the match in the second half, stringing more passes together against a Russian press that wasn’t quite as intense. They had their best chance of the match when Mohammed Al-Breik’s cross drifted across the goalmouth, but neither Al-Sahlawi nor Al-Jassim could get a foot to it. The moment was lost, but Saudi Arabia seemed to have regained some hope. They were finding some possession and territory, and although the Russians were still making dangerous raids into their attacking third there was a sense that the Saudis now had a chance of scoring. Then Russia scored again.

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Artem Dzyuba celebrates after scoring Russia’s third goal. Dzyuba had been on for a minute when the chance came to him, and the goal was scored with his first touch.

The third came courtesy of another delightful Golovin cross. Once again, the talented attacking midfielder found himself with space and time to work with after breezing into the box against the laissez-faire Saudi defence. Once again, his delivery was flawless, finding formidable substitute Artem Dzyuba at the edge of the six-yard box. Once again, the chance was finished off comfortably. Russia were just too good.

Then came their injury time blitz. The game had settled into a bit of a lull, as neither side had a great deal to play for. That was before Cheryshev stepped up again. It was an innocuous looking attack, consisting of a long ball from defence directed at the towering presence of Dzyuba, but Cheryshev turned it into something magical. Collecting the knockdown from the powerful striker, he shot with the outside of his left boot, with the ball flying past Al-Mayouf. The Green Falcons’ spirit was broken, and Golovin’s beautiful finish was merely the icing on the cake.

For Russia, this win will give them the confidence – and the goal difference – to have a real crack at a spot in the second round. For Saudi Arabia, the lowest-ranked team in Russia, this humiliation (at the hands of the second lowest-ranked team) could well shatter their confidence, and it doesn’t bode well for the games ahead. Their stay at the World Cup is almost certain to be brief, but this campaign could end up feeling like a very long one for all involved.

Moscow – Luzhniki Stadium
Russia 5 (Gazinsky 12, Cheryshev 43, 90+1, Dzyuba 71, Golovin 90+4)
Saudi Arabia 0
Referee: Néstor Pitana (Arg)
Russia (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev – Mário Fernandes, Kutepov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov; Gazinsky, Zobnin; Samedov (Kuzyayev 64), Dzagoev (Cheryshev 24), Golovin; Smolov (Dzyuba 70).
Saudi Arabia (4-5-1): Abdullah Al-Mayouf – Al-Breik, Osama Hawsawi, Omar Hawsawi, Yasser Al-Shehrani; Salem Al-Dawsari, Otayf (Fahad Al-Muwallad 64), Salman Al-Faraj, Taisir Al-Jassim, Yahya Al-Shehri (Hattan Bahebri 74); Al-Sahlawi (Muhannad Assiri 84).

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Aleksandr Golovin places a free-kick into the top corner to score Russia’s fifth goal. Golovin was the star for the Russians, providing two assists in addition to his goal and setting up attacks with his hard work.

Top 5
1. Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
Golovin was everywhere, fighting hard for 90 minutes and receiving a fair reward when he picked up a late goal. He assisted two goals with beautiful crosses from the left and the right, and he seamlessly shifted from the left wing to the centre to cover for the injured Dzagoev. His ferocity in defence contributed to a number of turnovers, capping off a brilliant World Cup debut for the 22-year-old.
2. Denis Cheryshev (Russia)
Cheryshev came off the bench after Dzagoev’s injury, and provided a very dangerous attacking threat from the left wing. He scored twice, and managed to make a number of incisive runs to burst through the insipid Saudi defence. His second goal, coming when the match was already sealed, was an incredible finish with the outside of the boot.
3. Yuri Zhirkov (Russia)
Zhirkov showed his experience throughout the match, adding extra impetus to the Russian attack from left-back and combining very well with Cheryshev. His delivery into the box was always dangerous, and he managed to get more involved on the defensive side of the ball than most of Russia’s players. He put in a workmanlike and effective performance.
4. Artem Dzyuba (Russia)
Dzyuba came on in the 70th minute, scored with his first touch and looked much more dangerous than Fyodor Smolov. Maybe the Saudis were already broken by the time he came on, but he showed excellent skill for his massive frame and caused plenty of problems. He will have to come into serious consideration for their next match.
5. Osama Hawsawi (Saudi Arabia)
The captain of the Green Falcons is the one man who can hold his head high after an otherwise dismal showing. His diligence in defence was admirable, especially as his teammates placed him in compromising positions time and time again. He was the only member of defence who looked solid both in and out of possession, and was doing his absolute best to hold it together. It just wasn’t possible.