Every story has an end. And so, it came to pass that Russia’s legendary run at the 21st edition of the World Cup which they, incidentally are hosting came to a screeching halt in dramatic style late on Saturday after falling on penalties to Croatia at the Fisht stadium in Sochi.
The Russians who had fought doggedly to come back twice after falling to the Croats would not be fortunate twice in the competition after the heroics of their goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev who had literally pulled them from the jaws of defeat in a shootout win to Denmark in the round of 16 last Sunday.
But the Russians are certain to look back and wish they were a bit more disciplined in discharging defensive duties on this occasion as it proved their undoing in a match they had a fair chance to win.
The Russians had drawn the first blood when they opened scoring through Denis Cheryshev from an Artem Dzyuba pass in the 31st minute, only to allow their opponents to claw their way back to the game through an Andrej Kramaric header from a Mario Mandzukic pass barely eight minutes later.
That singular mistake would go on to haunt them all through the game as the Croats made sure they dominated play, using a midfield anchored on the legs of the vastly experienced Luka Modric.
And it was the Croats, reputed not to have lost a game so far in five encounters to Nigeria, Argentina, Iceland, Denmark(, and now, Russia) who would conjure a lead in extra time after full-time scores stood at 1-1 as Domagoj Vida’s cheeky header deceived Akinfeev to sail into the net for what apparently looked the winner 10 minutes to the end of the match.
But the Russians were never going to give up without a fight as they also found a way to come back. Figueira Fernande’s would head home an equaliser five minutes after Vida’s effort to take the game to a shootout– the second time for both teams in as many games.
But, once again, as it was against Denmark, the Croats proved the more clinical of the teams, netting four of their spot kicks while Russia scored three and lost two.
In the absence of Daniel Subasic or Akinfeev making saves, it came down to how well the outfield players would fare in putting the balls at the back of the net.
Interestingly, as it turned out, it was the indefatigable Ivan Rakitic who decided the outcome of the game , opting to take the last kick, just the same way he did in their round of 16 clash with the Danes. He was making his 76th appearance for his country.
The victory means Croatia would be making their first semi final appearance at the World Cup 20 whole years after the last time at France’98 with Favor Suker leading with goals on that occasion.
They are now billed to clash with England in one of the semi finals on Wednesday