Russia’s emotional and stubborn journey through their own World Cup ended in heartbreak just before midnight on the Black Sea when they lost a penalty shoot-to Croatia at the Fisht Olympic Stadium.
Croatia will now face England in the last four in Moscow on Wednesday night and on this evidence there is nothing particular for Gareth Southgate and his players to fear. Luka Modric and his team-mates will certainly present England with a different test to any they have faced so far in Russia. They will play on the front foot and attempt to take the game to England, something teams like Sweden, Colombia, Panama and Tunisia have not done.
However, Croatia will be tired after this gruelling and emotional night. They have played two lots of 120 minutes in the knockout stages, winning a shoot out against Denmark in the last sixteen, and that may take its toll in three days’ time.
Croatia players celebrate after winning their second consecutive knockout round match on penalties to reach semi-finals
Croatia will play England in the semi-final after winning the penalty shootout 4-3 against Russia following a 2-2 draw AET
Ivan Rakitic scores the winning penalty to give Croatia the win after an eventful quarter-final that ended 2-2 after extra-time
Russia players despair after losing on penalties after they took the lead and also fought back to 2-2 five minutes from time
Mario Fernandes fluffed his lines and sent his spot-kick wide after being the hero in extra-time to take it to penalties
Croatia defender Dejan Lovren posted celebration photos from inside the changing room after the quarter-final victory
For Russia, this was a tough night. They had come back from the dead with an equaliser from defender Mario Fernandes seven minutes from the end of extra-time to force penalties. But sadly it was the Brazilian-born defender who missed the crucial kick in the shoot-out.
For Croatia, Marcelo Brozovic, Modric, Domagoj Vida and, finally, Ivan Rakitic all scored their kicks with only Mateo Kovacic missing his country’s second effort.
But after Russia had recovered from the shock of Fedor Smolov missing their first kick with a successful strike from Alan Dzagoev, Fernandes dragged his team’s third one horribly wide meaning that subsequent goals from Sergey Ignashevich and Daler Kuziaev were rendered meaningless when Rakitic converted Croatia’s final kick.
Croatia had earlier looked to be on their way through after a header by Vida had been nudged in to the net by substitute and former Manchester City and Tottenham defender Vedran Corluka in the first period of extra time.
But then the Russians were awarded a free-kick for handball on the edge of the penalty area in the 113th minute and when Dzagoev whipped it in Fernandes rose to head it in to the corner. Rarely has a World Cup ever heard a noise like it.
Croatia had dominated the 90 minutes of normal time but had fallen behind when Russian golden boy Denis Cheryshev scored from 25 yards on the half hour It was fantastic strike and his fourth goal of a fairytale tournament
Zlatko Dalic’s team struck back almost immediately through Andrej Kramaric who headed in a cross from Mario Mandzukic but the closest they came to winning the game in normal time came when the disappointing Ivan Perisic struck the post when he should have scored in the 61st minute.
How much Croatia will stretch England will probably depend on their energy reserves as much as anything.
When their goalkeeper Danijel Subasic went down with cramp in the 88th minute, it started a trend. By the end of the extra period, some of the Croatian players could barely stand. How they managed to get themselves through the shoot out only they will know.
Croatia have also lacked something of a cutting edge in the knockout stages. When they embarrassed Argentina 3-0 in the group phase, they looked as though they would prove themselves to be one of the tournament’s most expansive and dangerous teams.