Croatia have braved a dramatic battle against hosts Russia to take out a 4-3 win via penalty shoot out to confirm their place in the World Cup semi-final against England.
After having endured a penalty shootout in their last matchday, both sides were determined to make their second ever World Cup semi-final in their respective histories. Croatia last made the semis in 1998 in France, while Russia's last appearance came as the Soviet Union in 1966.
Russia's organisation has been their biggest strength this far, lying in wait for the opportune moment to strike. On the contrary, Croatia's attack minded approach has resulted in a near perfect campaign. Their contrasting styles made for an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
Croatia opened the game with composure and looked to set the tone early, but Russia's defensive play has shown us they are just as deadly without the ball at their feet.
They upset the balance of the match by scoring against the run of play. Denis Cheryshev laid off a neat one-two with Artem Dzyuba before unleashing a vicious strike that almost burst the back of the net, sending the hosts into pandemonium.
Their jubilation was not to last, as Croatia's patience on the ball drew them level just 8 minutes later. Mario Mandzukic capitalised on a lapse in Russian defending to pick out an unmarked Andrej Kramaric for a simple header.
After the half time break Luka Modric imposed his class and control almost flawlessly, while Kramaric continued to lead the assault on Croatia's defence in the second half, even trying an unsuccessful but audacious overhead kick.
Croatia's patience was a key factor in shutting out Russia's attack as they continued to dominate the stat sheet, however they hardly troubled Igor Akinfeev's goal with reckless shooting getting their possession nowhere.
Frustration began to mount from Croatia's wastefulness, finding space and playing beautifully but lacking that finishing touch. Ivan Perisic spurned a glorious chance from close range, keeping incredible poise to dribble into the centre of the box before cracking the upright.
With either side unable to find the go-ahead goal, scores remained deadlocked at the end of 90 minutes to push this tight affair to extra time.
Two successive matchdays of extra time began to take its toll, Russia were unable to maintain their hard running and couldn't find a plan B while Croatia's players began to pull up with cramp.
Play slowed to a crawl with both sides becoming scrappy in their fouls while trying to carve out any sort of chances they could.
The deadlock was broken after 100 minutes of football. A Croatian corner found the head of Domagoj Vida, and the goalkeeper had his view impeded for the ball to sneak through and give Croatia a crucial 2-1 lead.
Russia were left feeling dejected, and the boisterous fans struggled to find their voice. That was until the 115th minute, Mario Fernandes rose head and shoulders above the rest to score his first international goal from a set piece and keep Russia well and truly in the tie.
It went down to penalties for the second game in a row for both these sides. Concerns for Croatia as their goalkeeper Subasic battled hamstring issues before the end of the match.
It mattered not as he stepped up to the plate and saved Smolov's attempted Panenka penalty to put Croatia at an advantage. Mateo Kovacevic saw his attempt saved, but extra time scorer Fernandes went from hero to zero as he sent his penalty wide.
Real Madrid star Ivan Rakitic coolly slotted Croatia's final penalty home to give them a nailbiting 4-3 win on penalties. Russia's gallant and inspiring campaign at home has come to an end in devastating fashion, but the hosts should hold their heads high at their incredible efforts.
Croatia will face England next for a spot at the 2018 World Cup final.
WORLD CUP QUARTERFINALS
Russia - 2 (Cheryshev 31', Fernandes 115')
Croatia - 2 (Kramaric 39', Vida 100') Won on penalties
Fisht Stadium, Sochi
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