Danijel Subasic rescued Croatia with an astounding three-save effort in penalty kicks, outdueling Kasper Schmeichel to send the Vatreni through to the quarterfinals with a thrilling and exhausting 3-2 win on penalties Sunday in Nizhny Novogorod after the teams played to a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes.
Schmeichel’s heroics got Denmark to spot kicks as he stoned Luka Modric on a penalty in the 116th minute. The Leicester City keeper did all he could with everything at stake, matching Subasic with stops in the first and fourth rounds. But after his Monaco counterpart stopped Nicolai Jorgensen’s attempt with his feet, Ivan Rakitic won the match for the Vatreni by sending Schmeichel the wrong way while slotting his shot into the lower left corner.
It is Croatia’s first trip to the World Cup quarterfinals since its third-place finish in its maiden appearance in 1998. The Vatreni trek on to Sochi on Saturday to face host Russia, which stunningly eliminated Spain in similar fashion hours earlier.
Croatia, though, had a much clearer sightline of the quarterfinals in extra time after Martin Jorgensen hauled down Ante Rebic from behind after the striker rounded Schmeichel following a killer through ball by Modric. Nestor Pitana made no hesitation in pointing to the spot, which VAR confirmed in short order.
Modric, who converted a penalty against Nigeria in group play, put an unconvincing effort too close to Schmeichel as he tried to pick out the right corner, and the Leicester City keeper got down quickly to smother it without conceding a rebound.
His father Peter, who backstopped Denmark to the 1992 European Championship, roared in approval from the stands as the match played out to its final act — penalty kicks to determine who would advance to Sochi.
Denmark captain Christian Eriksen was the first to go from 12 yards, but Subasic correctly dove to his right and pushed the low shot off the post. Schmeichel then denied Milan Badelj with his feet to keep the match on level.
The next four attempts were successful with Simon Kjaer and Michael Krohn-Deli converting for Denmark. After Andrej Kramaric got Croatia’s first, Modric atoned for his miss — but barely so — as his shot down the middle narrowly avoided Schmeichel’s boots after he dove left.
Then it was Subasic’s turn to shine, diving to his right to deny Lasse Schone, only to see Schmeichel respond in kind by getting a strong right hand out to knock away Josip Pivaric’s attempt. But the Monaco man had one more save in him, which turned out to be the last one of an enthralling contest.
The game sprinted out of the blocks as the teams traded the only goals of the contest in the first four minutes, the first time that has happened at the World Cup. Denmark got off to a dream start inside a minute as a long throw by Jonas Knudsen from the right sideline into the penalty area reached Thomas Delaney, who slid it across to Mathias Jorgensen.
His shot from the elbow of the six-yard box on the left ticked off Danijel Subasic’s left hand and rolled into the net for his first international goal.
Yet it took Croatia just three minutes to equalize through Mario Mandzukic. Ivan Rakitic carried the ball into the penalty area from the right, and the Danish back line made a hash of its attempted clearance as it hit Andreas Christensen in the face. The ball fell perfectly to Mandzukic, who knocked it in from six yards inside the left post.
The remaining 116 minutes featured an ebb and flow of adjustments and counter adjustments, with Denmark manager Age Hareide astutely narrowing the field after halftime by pushing his wide backs higher. Croatia finally regrouped after the introduction of Mateo Kovacic in the 71st minute, but it also suffered in the first extra-time period as Denmark held possession but could not unlock a sound Vatreni defense.
Sisto had a nice turn and curl in the 108th minute for Denmark, but his attempt across goal from the elbow of the penalty area on the left flew well wide of the far post. Knudsen, whose long throw-ins into the penalty area gave Croatia fits all match, created a half-chance with one in the 113th minute, but after it was flicked onto Nicolai Jorgensen, whose shot rippled the side-netting.
Then Modric’s chance came and went four minutes from time, leaving Denmark with all the momentum to make its first quarterfinal appearance at the World Cup since 1998, only to have the unheralded Subasic steal the spotlight.
Lasse Schone came closest in the first extra period in the 99th minute, but his 20-yard effort after twisting away from Mateo Kovacic went wide of the left post. Schmeichel touched a deflected shot by Andrej Kramaric over the bar after it popped up in the 104th minute. Modric had a pair of in-swingers from the left that were cleared from danger.
Croatia should have taken a 2-1 lead on the half-hour. Modric fizzed a shot from 20 yards Schmeichel punched away. Rebic got to the rebound on the left and forced another save from the Denmark keeper with a shot on the end line parried into the middle. Ivan Perisic, though, snatched at his volley on the first attempt before firing the second over the bar.
Denmark, though, refused to buckle as it quickly earned a corner on the other end. Eriksen’s outswinger was not fully cleared as the Tottenham Hotspur playmaker was able to whip in another cross from the right, but Subasic intercepted that one.
Modric whipped a tantalizing free kick from the left into the six-yard area in the 39th minute, but Dejan Lovren didn’t get enough of his head on it to re-direct it on frame. Eriksen tried to chip Subasic in the 42nd minute, picking out the upper left corner from just inside the penalty area, but it went wide.
Schmeichel was alert to make a comfortable save in the 44th minute as Rakitic was able to latch onto a lateral pass in the penalty area and tried a low left-footed shot from 15 yards.
Nicolai Jorgensen should have done better in the 72nd minute at the top of the penalty area after a pass from Yussuf Poulsen, but he dawdled and sent a low effort that Subasic easily stopped. Denmark continued to seize the initiative and push forward, with Eriksen going wide on a shot from the top of the box minutes later, though it lacked the pace to trouble Subasic had it gone on frame.
Schone tried an ambitious slicing right-footed shot from 20 yards for Denmark in the 89th minute, but went well wide of the left post. The Danes tried to replicate their long throw-in magic through Knudsen in the final minute of the 90, but the Ipswitch Town defender had both throws into the penalty area cleared.
Rakitic had Croatia’s last scoring chance before extra time, whistling a 25-yard shot wide of the left post. Denmark gained a 93rd-minute corner on the left, and Subasic punched Eriksen’s in-swinger right to Brathwaite, whose volley from the top of the penalty area on the right sailed wide of the left post.