For a Croatia squad laden with talent from around Europe’s top clubs, one figure still loomed large entering this tournament: 1998. That was the year Croatia, led by Davor Suker in its first World Cup appearance, made a stunning run to the semifinals in France, finishing third after a difficult loss to the French in the final four.
The current squad, led by top-tier talents in Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric — dubbed the country’s “golden generations” for years — had earned international success to a point, making strong runs at the 2008 and 2016 European Championships before falling in the group stages. But it had yet to match its country’s gold standard, the 1998 achievement, until Saturday.
A match that began sleepily before picking up speed and careening into a furious two periods of extra time ended with Rakitic burying his penalty kick in a shootout to send Croatia past the host, Russia, and into the semis.
Russia, which had relied on organization and stout defense in its surprise run to the quarterfinals, struck the first blow against the run of play with a stroke of brilliance by Denis Cheryshev, who smashed a strike into the upper left corner in the 31st minute. But Croatia answered coolly eight minutes later when Mandzukic fed Andrej Kramaric for an easy header from close range.
Croatia slowly cranked up the pressure in the second half, but it wasn’t until the 11th minute of extra time that it got what felt like the match-winner. Domagoj Vida headed in a goal off a corner kick, and it seemed Croatia had sealed it against an exhausted Russia squad. But the Russians had one more remarkable moment to give to their home fans: a header from Mário Fernandes in the 115th minute that restored visions of Russia, hardly expected to advance past the round of 16, on the semifinal stage of the World Cup.
But it was not to be. Danijel Subasic, Croatia’s goalkeeper, saved the first penalty from Fedor Smolov, and Fernandes sent his wide, and that was enough for Croatia to go through to the last four in its fifth appearance at the World Cup. Croatia will play on Wednesday against England, a team also looking to match past glory.
(New York Times)