Croa­tia needs

CROA­TIA 2, RUS­SIA 2 (4-3, PKS)

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY STEVEN GOFF steven.goff@wash­post.com

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.”

MANU FERNANDEZ/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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