By the time you read this , we will already know one set of semi-finalists, but who is going to join them:-
SWEDEN v CROATIA – 7th July – Samara
RUSSIA v CROATIA – 7th July – Sochi
It wasn’t the greatest of games, but it was great drama as Russia beat Spain on penalties whilst the rain smashed down in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. When captain and goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev saved Iago Aspas’ spot kick to confirm the victory, the whole of Russia started one massive party that would have resonated across the whole country. I can only imagine how much vodka was drank last Sunday night. As mentioned the match itself wasn’t something that you would write home about, especially the first 90 minutes, which brought an early goal from Spain, awful defending from 38 year old veteran Sergei Ignashevich, who was credited with an own goal. They equalised from the penalty spot, Artem Dzyuba doing the business after a handball by Gerard Pique. After that, the hosts really dug in as Spain tried to break them down, however the 2010 champions attempts at this were poor, they were too slow and ponderous, the Russians 5 man defence (basically 9 man) didn’t have too much to deal with as the game wore on into an extra 30 minutes. It was only when caretaker manager, Fernando Hierro, went with 2 men up front at the start of the second period of extra time did the backline of the home nation begin to feel the pinch, unfortunately the clock beat them as they tried to take advantage as their waves of pressure were getting more and more intense. Maybe it was just never going to be the Spaniards day as they had a very legitimate claim for a penalty but somehow VAR sided with the team whose fans took up the majority of the stadium. Yes it can be argued that they didn’t do enough to deserve victory in extra time, but VAR is in to decide things at crucial stages, I think we all know what the decision would have been if it was the other way round. Well we are where we are and a Russian team derided by their fans, who couldn’t win a game pre tournament in their build up matches are now into the World Cup quarter finals, what next, we shall see in Sochi on Saturday night.
In another dramatic finish, arguably more so than earlier in that day, Croatia prevailed on penalties in a game they tried their best to bottle, but the Danes, even though they were the better team across the 120 minutes, unfortunately lacked the quality to make it count. In what must have felt like an age come the end of the match, Denmark had actually taken the lead after just 57 seconds, Mathias Jorgensen with the goal, upset alert was set. However the Croatians gathered themselves and equalised just a few minutes later through Mario Mandzukic, 1-1 after less than 5 minutes. They then took control and looked much more like the team who had won all their group stage matches but could not get a second breakthrough. At half-time, Danish coach, Åge Hareide implemented a change pushing his full backs up which forced the Croat wingers further back and left front man Mandzukic isolated. From this point on the underdogs took control, but missed decent chances to take the lead for a second time. Zlatko Dalic’s team looked lost, though fleetingly created opportunities through the quality they possessed in their team and as the game drifted towards penalties deep into extra time, Luka Modric’s through ball resulted in a penalty award, as captain he stepped up, but had his weak penalty saved, so onto the lottery of the shootout. Misses / saves galore occurred, which is always much more fun for the neutral, though credit has be given to goalkeepers Schmeichel and Subasic who were outstanding and kudos also to Modric who despite his miss earlier, took a spot kick,which this time he converted, crucially too. In the end Croatia were given the opportunity to win the shootout and Ivan Rakitic, who had not really got into the game, fired home to send Croatia into the last 8. They celebrated wildly and know they have got away with one there. Now onto Sochi where the hosts awaits, surely they cannot play as badly again?
PREDICTION – So both teams know what it is like to go through the mill with penalty shootout victories to make this stage. Russia’s battle and heart is admirable, but I just have a feeling that Spain played into their hands for far too long of that game by not going direct and playing two up front. Croatia were very average and are lucky to have got through, they did their best to throw it away but their opponents lacked the quality to take advantage. A bigger concern is that it took just one tactical shift from the Danes to render them lost and a concern must be that even with all their talent they looked very one dimensional from the second half onwards. I feel that Croatia have had their scare and will put into action a way of developing further playing styles, this will be enough to see off the hosts, especially if the officiating is at the level we expect and hope it to be. 0-2 to Croatia.
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