Croatia halted valiant hosts Russia’s splendid run with a 4-3 (2-2) win via penalty shootout at the Fisht Stadium here on Saturday to enter the FIFA World Cup semi-finals for the second time after a gap of 20 years.
Denis Cheryshev’s 25-yard screamer in the 31st minute gave Russia the lead but Croatia pulled level through Andrej Kramaric’s header in the 39th minute. Domagoj Vida gave Croatia the lead with a header in the 101st minute.
But Mario Fernandes found Russia’s equaliser in the 115th minute to send the match to penalty shootout, in which Croatia prevailed to set-up a semi-final clash with England, who beat Sweden 2-0 earlier in the day in Samara.
The defeat leaves Russia with their best-ever performance since its breakaway from Soviet Union, which had its top show in FIFA World Cup history with a fourth-place finish in 1966 edition.
For Croatia, the win keeps their hopes alive of going further than their best ever show of a third-place finish which came in 1998.
The current generation is considered the country’s second best after the class of 1998 and now they head in to the semi-finals with dreams full of becoming the finalists, at least.
Croatia are now also the first team to enter the last four stage of a World Cup after surviving two penalty shootouts.
Their first victory came over Denmark. And they indeed showed a lot of patience, throughout the match against a gutsy Russia, who kept coming back at them, even though the Croats were favourites on paper.
Croatia, playing with a 4-2-3-1 formation, brought in Kramaric in place of midfielder Macelo Brozovic expectedly had the more of the ball initially.
In the first 20 minutes, they also created couple of chances with crosses from right-back Sime Vrsaljko but striker Mario Mandzukic coulnd’t be in right position to have a shot at goal.
A corner from the right saw a header from Ante Rebic fly over the cross-bar from close range after the ball met Dejan Lovren’s header.
After a decent start, Croatia began only to keep the ball in the middle while trying to slow down the game.
Russia slowly grew with the game and took the lead out of nowhere, thanks to Cheryshev, who kocked down an aerial ball before playing one-two with Artem Dzyuba down the inside-left channel.
Receiving the return, Chereyshev took a touch inside to move into a pocket of space before curling thunderously into the top left corer from 25 yards to mark his fourth goal of the tournament.
Stunned by the goal, Croatia again had to be proactive. They got their equaliser eight minutes later in the 39th minute.
A goal-kick from Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic saw left-back Ivan Strinic head the ball to the left middle to Ivan Perisic, who then flicked it ahead to Mandzukic.
The striker saw the space on the left of the box before sending a low cross to Kramaric, who then bent down to steer a header pass goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev into the bottom right corner of the net.
Croatia upped the ante in the second half in order to take control of the match but Russia, playing with a very disciplined structure closed down the space well.
Ivan Perisic had a great chance to send Croatia 2-1 ahead but his drive was denied by the left post in the 60th minute after the ball fell on his feet at the penalty spot following a deep cross from left-back Strinic was brought into play by Kramaric and two defenders fumbled the ball inside the box.
Later, Madzukic and Aleksandr Yerokhin had their chances with headers from close range as the two teams seemed to lack creativity and went after aerial movements.
With no goal coming, the match went into 30-minute extra time.
In the 11th minute of the extra time, Croatia won a corner on the right following a counter-attack and Vida fought off his marker to send a slow header to the bottom right corner to give Croatia the lead.
However, Croatia’s lead lasted only 14 minutes as Fernandes met a free-kick just from the edge of the box on the right with a header to beat Subasic as the match needed a penalty shootout to decide the winner.
During the tie-breaker, Brozovic gave Croatia the lead after Fyodor Smolov had his hot saved by Subasic. It became 1-1 when Alan Dzagoev scored and Mateo Kovacic flopped.
Fernandes sent the ball wide of the mark while captain Modric handed Croatia a 2-1 lead. In Russia’s next two attempts, Sergei Ignasevich and Kuzyayev were successful but as did Vida and Ivan Rakitic to give Croatia a 4-3 triumph.