Ivan Rakitic stepped up, 12 yards away from writing the final lines of this incredible drama. The Croatian fans looked weary, almost expecting another twist in a penalty shootout with more twists and turns than a racing track. Calmly slotting it away, Rakitic redeemed Luka Modric, his country’s finest player. Kasper Schmeichel looked despondent, having been heroic for so much of the contest.
He and Denmark had fought like lions. But on a night of ups and downs, the Croats managed to hold their composure, leaving their fans dazed yet delighted. Croatia will move into the next round, on the back of a barmy, odd and absorbing night of football, where two games have gone to the bitter end and shredded our nerves.
After the snooze-fest of Spain and their ponderous possession, to see a game come flying out the blocks was refreshing. A long throw from Jonas Knudsen made its way into the box to land at the feet of Thomas Delaney, who moved it to Mathias Jorgensen. He drove his shot at the feet of Subasic who failed to keep the shot out and allowed the ball to slither in. The blue torch paper was lit. The Croats replied with fire of their own, with a Sime Vrsaljko cross giving the Danes grief. A hashed clearance cannoned off Andreas Christiansen into the path of Mario Mandzukic, who finished with aplomb on the swivel.
The game was alive and well. Ante Rebic proved a menace down the right, while Modric assumed his regista role with ease. Modric and Rakitic formed an able controlling force for the first half of the game, helping their team smoothly move from midfield to the final third. Denmark were limited to the odd move on the break. A loose giveaway saw Rakitic taking a good pop at goal, and the ball being recycled into a great position to Ivan Perisic, only for him to miss his kick. Eriksen had a lovely lobbed effort strike the woodwork on the break, as Denmark had half a foot in the game at halftime.
The second half was by and largely forgettable, with both teams, seemingly playing with the handbrake on. Both were hesitant and ponderous on the ball. For Denmark, Delaney and Yussuf Poulsen made good surging runs with the ball, without being able to craft a final end product. Neither could Ivan Perisic at the other end, who was fed in promising spaces. A late bout of Croat pressure resulted in efforts for Rebic and Josip Pivaric at goal. As Rakitic drove a low effort wide on the 92-minute mark, the game moved into extra time.
As extra time started to unfold, both teams seemed to be engaged in a cat and mouse affair, waiting for the other to make an error. Sisto had a curling effort fly just wide for Denmark before the game’s biggest moment arrived. Rebic was played through on goal with a sharp ball from Modric, slicing through the Denmark defense. As Rebic rounded Schmeichel, Mathias Jorgensen knew unless he took one for the team, the game was up. A trip on Rebic arrested his momentum, and he was brought down, all the time trying to sweep the ball home.
With the penalty awarded and Jorgensen escaping with a booking, the pressure fell to Modric. Usually wonderfully composed and assured, Modric failed to convert this time, as Schmeichel plunged to his left, going the right way and making a fine save. As Peter looked down with pride and punched the air, Kasper knew he had kept his country alive in the World Cup, albeit at the mercy of a penalty shootout.
Christian Eriksen got proceedings underway. An excellent save from Subasic onto the post was to mark the beginning of a dramatic shootout. Milan Badelj’s spot kick was saved in turn by Schmeichel. Simon Kjaer then lashed his effort in, while Andrej Kramaric stroked his home. Michael Krohn-Dehli finished his chance and then stepped up Modric. One could see that he was under enormous pressure. Yet, as all the best players do, he made it look easy. He beat Schmeichel this time, with a calmly taken effort.
Another round of saves followed, this time from Lasse Schone and Pivaric by the two goalkeepers, who seemed to be engaged in their own personal duel. With the scores finely poised at 2-2, and sudden death at the door, Nikolai Jorgensen stepped up. His centrally aimed effort was parried away by the feet of Subasic, and Rakitic now had the chance to finish Denmark off. As he made no mistake with his effort, he reeled away in celebration, leaving behind a despairing Schmeichel.
This was a game that had its fair share of quality individual performers. For Croatia, Modric and Rakitic were their usual outstanding selves in midfield, running things. Modric was not made to pay for his missed penalty and will be grateful to Rakitic for that. Subasic had a fine show at the penalty shootout. For Denmark, this was a good team effort, with many of their players working hard as a unit. While Eriksen could not conjure up an individual highlight reel like he so often does, the rest of his team stepped up and put up a unified fight. Special praise must go to Peter Schmeichel, who not only saved Modric’s penalty but nearly single-handedly clawed his team past the finish line in the shootout.
- Subasic became only the second keeper in World Cup history to have made three saves in a shootout since Ricardo for Portugal.
- For Croatia however, it is their first quarter-final since 1998.
- Mandzukic has now scored 3 goals at the World Cup, the second highest for a Croat, only behind Davor Suker.
- Denmark have conceded three penalties at the World Cup, the most by any side since Greece in 1994.
This wasn’t a game for the ages or a classic. It was often a slow, cautious affair. But as the night wore on, tension crept into the game. A huge weight of expectation at this level can often be too much to handle. It even got to one of the game’s finest players, at such a late stage. But, to Modric’s massive relief, his team and goalkeeper covered for him. And it is deserved, for all the times he, Luka Modric, has stepped up for them.
The penalty shootout proved to possibly be the most thrilling episode of the match, with two fine, brilliant goalkeepers. The tournament will miss Schmeichel, Erisken and their team. But Croatia held their nerve, and are a fine team with brilliant quality running down its spine. They are in a half of the draw that is packed with teams punching above their weight, none more so than the hosts. Croatia’s game against Russia will be one to keep an eye out for. Until then, Modric and his team-mates will look to sleep and recharge their batteries, after a nervy and tiring affair
Feature Image via Independent
Image 1 and 3 via Guardian
Image 2 via CNN
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