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