Croatia Defeat Russia on Penalties, Advance to Semi-Finals at 2018 World Cup

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2018

Croatia's midfielder Ivan Rakitic (L) and Russia's midfielder Yuri Gazinskiy vie for the ball during the extra time of the Russia 2018 World Cup quarter-final football match between Russia and Croatia at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi on July 7, 2018. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS        (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Croatia knocked hosts Russia out of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Saturday in a penalty shootout following a 2-2 draw after extra time in the quarter-final at Sochi's Fisht Stadium.

Ivan Rakitic scored the decisive spot-kick to give Croatia a 4-3 win in the shootout after Fyodor Smolov and Mario Fernandes wasted their chances from the spot for the home nation.

Goals from Denis Cheryshev and Andrej Kramaric left the score deadlocked at 1-1 after 90 minutes, before defenders Domagoj Vida and Fernandes traded headed goals in extra time.

Croatia will face England in the semi-final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Wednesday, July 11.


Croatia Shouldn't Worry England in Semi-final

Croatia made it through, but England shouldn't be afraid of what awaits them in Wednesday's semi-final in the Russian capital. For all their industry in midfield, the Blazers were shaky defensively, particularly from set-pieces.

Potential injuries at the back won't help matters, either. Subasic made a save in the shootout, but the towering stopper spent most of extra time favouring what appeared to be a leg injury.

There was no doubt about the status of Sime Vrsaljko, who was forced off during the first half of extra time.

Neither of England's potential last-four opponents impressed much in Sochi, only further underlining the idea the Three Lions are in the weak half of the draw:

Richard Osman @richardosman

The bottom half of this World Cup draw really is Scrappy Doo compared to the Scooby Doo of the top half #RUSCRO

Croatia have the star power in midfield and up front to turn on the style in Moscow. However, England shouldn't be unduly concerned about their ability to exploit vulnerabilities in the Blazers' game.


In-Form Mario Mandzukic Gives Croatia Another Playmaker

Usually, any spotlight on Croatia shines on the ingenuity of a Modric-led midfield. Yet Mandzukic proved there is more to this squad than Modric.

It was the Juventus forward who crossed deftly for strike partner Kramaric to head in the equaliser six minutes before half-time. Mandzukic is a towering presence known for his height and aggression, but the chipped pass showed a technical acumen:

Thomas Floyd @thomasfloyd10

Mandzukic plays with far more grace than any 6-foot-3 player rightfully should. #WorldCup

Aside from the extra layers to his game, Mandzukic also delivers when it matters most. In particular, the 32-year-old has often saved his best for this tournament:

Match of the Day @BBCMOTD

Super Mario. Mario Mandzukic has been directly involved in four goals in six #WorldCup appearances (three goals and one assist). Live: https://t.co/veJ7PLj3fE #bbcworldcup #worldcup #RUS #CRO #RUSCRO https://t.co/b1FFDcWcqS

Cristian Nyari @Cnyari

Mandzukic, one of the most underrated big-game players of our generation.

Deft touches, neat passes and precise knockdowns make Mandzukic an ideal link player for Croatia's midfield maestros. Not only does he keep them supplied, but the veteran striker's movement also creates space through the middle for runners in behind.

Specifically, Mandzukic's drifting onto the left flank vacates the middle and lets others get up in support of Kramaric.

Croatia's strikers have hit form at the right time and provided another dimension to a team too often reliant to brilliance from midfield.


Cheryshev in Shop Window after Brilliant Tournament

No player has done more at this World Cup to help his club prospects than Cheryshev. The 27-year-old once flopped at Real Madrid, but big clubs around Europe must surely have taken notice of how dynamic he's been on home soil.

Cheryshev added his fourth goal of the tournament in typically spectacular fashion when he struck from distance in the 31st minute. Fox Soccer has the goal for U.S. audiences:

FOX Soccer @FOXSoccer

MY GOODNESS, Denis Cheryshev 😱 https://t.co/GC70eDB7cv

Meanwhile, UK viewers can enjoy the strike on ITV Football:

ITV Football @itvfootball

GOAL! Wow! Cheryshev runs on to a perfectly weighted pass and bends a first-time shot with his left boot into the top corner of the net https://t.co/gfcsLGBEtR

The terrific hit meant Cheryshev joined select company in his nation's footballing history:

OptaJoe @OptaJoe

4 - Denis Cheryshev has scored four goals at the 2018 World Cup - only Oleg Salenko (6 in 1994) has netted more in a single edition of the tournament for Russia (including USSR). Hero. #RUS #RUSCRO #WorldCup https://t.co/P4PKdeMhpK

It also continued a remarkable turnaround for a player who didn't begin the tournament in a starring role:

Jules Breach @julesbreach

That guy, Cheryshev, what a goal!! After coming off the bench on the opening day, he is having the tournament of his life! Talk about making the most of an opportunity. What a strike! #RUSCRO #WorldCup

Cheryshev has seized his moment to showcase not only a flair for a memorable strike, but also perceptive movement from the advanced areas of midfield.

He often plays on the left for Russia, but with the freedom to ghost into a variety of positions. Cheryshev has interchanged with his fellow midfielders brilliantly and offers Russia a cutting edge few would have credited the hosts with before the competition.

Fierce shooting power, a keen eye for goal and intelligent runs off the ball are qualities any top side would welcome in the final third. Cheryshev joined Villarreal in 2016, but the Yellow Submarine are going to have a tough time keeping suitors at bay based on performances at this level.