Who? Russia - Croatia
Where? Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi
When? July 6, 20:00 (CET local time)
One of the biggest fears in Croatia, following the impressive group stage domination, was another round of 16 mental collapse that comes as a result of some big expectations – similar to what happened in Euro 2016: Portugal, the eventual winners, came as underdogs vs Croatia and eliminated them.
That scenario was very close to repeat itself, as Denmark put everything on the line and pulled the Croatians all the way to the penalties. At the 115th minute, Luka Modrić sent an amazing ball to Ante Rebić, who found himself facing and empty net – but was fouled at the last moment before scoring. Modrić missed the penalty, the game went to penalty kicks to decide the winner, and the momentum suddenly felt Danish. For many, this reminded the Uruguay – Ghana quarter finals from 2010, when Luis Suarez’s handball and Gyan Asamoah’s missed penalty broke the Ghanaian’s mentally. Moreover, The Croatian’s had a Deja-vu from the Euro 2008 quarter finals, as they scored a 119th minute goal vs Turkey, only to concede an equalizer a minute later and then losing in penalties.
This time, it wasn’t that case – Croatia won in penalties. It was an emotional rollercoaster, and even Modrić scored his penalty from the shootout. The game in Nizhny Novogrod proved, more than anything, that the Croatians have great character. Now they face hosts Russia in the quarter finals and feel there is a chance to continue dreaming. As memories of the 1998 World Cup continue, it’s time to remind the Vatreni that they were eliminated in that tournament by the hosts France in the semifinals, so perhaps its time to look at 2018 as a chance to make new and better history.
The other half of this European derby has also qualified to the quarter finals in thrilling fashion. Russia faced the heavily favored Spain and set a very good defensive structure that forced the Spaniards into producing a lackluster passing fest. Yet, the Russian’s also needed to show mental strength. An own goal by 39-year-old Sergei Ignashevich forced Russia to attack, and they responded with a blitz towards the end of the first half. It led to a penalty equalizer by Artem Dzyuba. Ignashevich overcame his own demons, and himself produced a tough defensive display, along with goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev – who was the penalty shootout hero eventually.
As a youngster, Akinfeev looked set to become a world class goalkeeper. He won the 2005 UEFA Cup with CSKA Moscow and produced stunning performances such as keeping a clean sheet away vs Arsenal in the Champions League a year later. That game proved to be a turning point, as he conceded in 43 consecutive Champions League games. Akinfeev was ridiculed and became a laughing stock and has also symbolized the uncompetitive nature of the modern Russian footballer who preferred to stay at home and enjoy earning easy money rather than moving to play in Western Europe. But now, after helping the national team beat Spain in front of the home fans, he has cemented his place in Russian football folklore.
Akinfeev and Ignashevich will play their 550th game together vs Croatia, an astonishing number, as Russia will try to keep the dream alive – and they can gain optimism from the fact that Croatia are 0 from 2 vs World Cup hosts. The Spaniards, whom they defeated on Sunday, have also never beat a World Cup host previously. Ironically, Sochi’s distance from Zagreb and Moscow is almost similar – but it is definite the Russian fans are all in with their team now.