CROATIA 2, RUSSIA 2 (4-3, PKS)
penalties to advance Host Russia just misses another upset as the Croatians survive a shootout.
moscow — For a month of spellbinding soccer, Russia has wrapped its arms around this big, beautiful World Cup and celebrated the sport from the Baltic to the Pacific and in 11 host cities.
What the host country did not expect — not in its kookiest dreams — was being in position to rally behind its low-ranked national team for more than a few matches.
On Saturday in Sochi, the hosts were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Croatia on penalty kicks, 4-3, after a 2-2 draw that included goals by both sides in the 30 minutes of extra time.
Along the way, however, a lightly talented squad that many feared would not even survive the group stage galvanized the country and destroyed expectations, falling one step short of the Soviet Union’s 1966 ride to the semifinals.
This Russian team won its first two games easily to secure passage to the round of 16, then shocked Spain on penalty kicks.
“We said we could only prove our worth by working hard,” Coach Stanislav Cherchesov said of his overachievers. “The people did not only start trusting us, but they are in love with us. The entire country is in love with us. They know what the national team is worth. We hope we have changed the situation for the better.”
Russia had won all of two matches in its previous three World Cup appearances, falling short of advancing to the knockout stage, and it failed to qualify for the tournament altogether three other times in that stretch.
In phone calls before and after the match, Cherchesov said, President Vladimir Putin offered words of support.
This ride ended at sold-out Fisht Stadium, but not before the Russians went ahead in the first half on a magnificent goal by Denis Cheryshev, his fourth of the tournament. Croatia drew even before intermission and took the lead in extra time, but Russia forced the tiebreaker when Mario Fernandes, a Brazilian-born naturalized citizen, scored with about five minutes left.
In the shootout, however, Fernandes missed the target in the third round, clearing the way for Croatia to become the first team since Argentina in 1990 to win consecutive matches on penalty kicks. As he did against Denmark last Sunday in the round of 16, Ivan Rakitic sealed the victory by converting in the fifth round.
“We’ve achieved something big, but this team can achieve more,” midfielder Luka Modric said. “We want to bring a medal home. What is on that medal, we’ll see.”
After logging 120 minutes in back-to-back games, the exhausted Croatians will be at a disadvantage in Wednesday’s semifinal against England at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The last time they made the final four was in 1998 in France, their first appearance since gaining independence after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
“This was not a beautiful game; it was a battle,” said Coach Zlatko Dalic, who was left in tears at the end of the moving night.
Russia played with greater ambition than it did against technically superior Spain, abandoning airtight defensive tactics for a style more conducive to attacking the Croatians.
“They surprised us,” Modric said. “They pressed us high, and we could not build up our play. Our style was cramped.”
Cheryshev made things more uncomfortable for Croatia in the 31st minute by striking a 25-yard shot into the top left corner. Croatia answered eight minutes later, traversing the field in short order and capitalizing on space left by Fernandes on the flank. Mario Mandzukic infiltrated the penalty area and crossed to Andrej Kramaric for a seven-yard header.
Croatia controlled most of the second half, pinning back the Russians for long stretches. Ivan Perisic almost cracked the deadlock with an eight-yard bid that struck the inside of the left post.
Croatia’s breakthrough finally came 11 minutes into extra time when Domagoj Vida headed Modric’s corner kick through a tangle of players and into the right side of the net.
Russia was done, or so it seemed. Inspired by the audience, it responded in the 115th minute when Fernandes was left unmarked at the six-yard box and nodded in Alan Dzagoev’s free kick.
Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was the hero of the shootout against Spain, but in this one, his save in the second round wasn’t enough. Croatia converted its last three chances to set up the showdown with England.
“Another drama for us,” Modric said. “We showed the character again.”
As he did in last Sunday’s round-of-16 penalty shootout against Denmark, Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic scored the winner in Saturday’s quarterfinals, beating Russia’s Igor Akinfeev.