Ivan Rakitic crushed the hopes and dreams of the host nation, burying the winning spot kick for the second straight match as Croatia advanced to its first World Cup semifinal in 20 years with a nerve-jangling and exhausting 4-3 victory on penalties over Russia on Saturday in Sochi.
Danjiel Subasic, Croatia’s hero of the round of 16 by becoming just the second keeper in World Cup history to stop three penalties in the win over Denmark, added a fourth save when he denied Fedor Smolov to open the shootout. He was also helped when Mario Fernandes — who leveled the match in the 115th minute — dragged his attempt wide of the left post in the third round.
Luka Modric — the tireless Croatia workhorse and talisman — further piled on the pressure by converting his attempt along with Domagoj Vida around successful takes by 38-year-old Sergey Ignashevich and Daler Kuziev for Russia.
With the prayers of a nation hoping Sbornaya keeper Igor Akinfeev could provide one more save after denying Mateo Kovacic in the second round, Rakitic calmly stroked his attempt into the same lower left corner that dispatched the Danes and lifted the Vatreni into their second semifinal in the team’s history.
The other came in their maiden appearance in 1998 led by Davor Suker, and this current golden generation led by Modric no longer have to worry about the comparisons of falling short in matching the squad that put Croatia on the international football map following the dissolving of Yugoslavia into nine different republics.
Croatia, which became the first team to win back-to-back penalty shootouts since Argentina beat Yugsolavia and host Italy to reach the 1990 final, will now try to recover from two draining matches ahead of a semifinal clash with England. The Three Lions advanced earlier Saturday with a straightforward 2-0 victory over Sweden.
Russia more than did its part as the host country but was denied its first World Cup semifinal appearance since 1966. The Sbornaya entered the tournament as the lowest-ranked team in the FIFA standings among the 32 countries in Russia at No. 70, but they showed they belonged on the world stage by advancing out of their group and stunning 2010 champion Spain in penalties in the previous round.
Though neither team wanted to play the extra 30 minutes and penalties after doing so while advancing from the round of 16, it seemed only fitting this contest would go there, especially after the teams traded goals eight minutes apart in the first half and again in the two 15-minute periods after ending the first 90 minutes deadlocked.
Vida put Croatia ahead 2-1 in the 101st minute with a perfectly placed header from 15 yards off a corner from Modric, hitting it downwards and getting it lost in a maze of players as it bounced inside the right post while Akinfeev did not see it until it was far too late. The Russia No. 1 and defender Ilya Kupetov had a miscommunication on a cross that led to the Vatreni corner, with Kupetov not hearing Akinfeev calling for the ball as he cleared it over the end line.
The Sbornaya, however, had one last act of magic for their home fans as Fernandes equalized on 115 minutes. Croatia left back Josip Pivaric was booked for a deliberate hand ball just above the right elbow of the penalty area, and the Brazilian-born right back made him pay dearly as he rose unmarked to meet Alan Dzagoev’s curling free kick and planted his header from eight yards inside the left corner.
That led to Russia’s supporters turning Fisht Stadium into a wall of noise the final five minutes in hopes of a late winner from the Sbornaya, but if the mind was willing, the legs were weak as both players had so little left after each chase of the ball that ended without reward sapped energy further. It may have been a relief to a few players when Sandro Ricci blew his whistle to signify penalties would be the final arbiter of this match.
The teams traded goals late in the first half, with both materializing out of nothing. Denis Cheryshev sent the home crowd into delirium just after the half-hour with his fourth goal of the World Cup.
Cheryshev, the lone player on Russia’s team not toiling in its domestic league, played a 1-2 with Artem Dzyuba laterally through the midfield. He raced onto the return pass and touched it left away from Modric’s slide-tackle before uncorking a curling left-footed drive from 20 yards that whistled into the upper left corner as Subasic stood watching flat-footed from the six-yard box.
Croatia, though, would equalize on 39 minutes through Andrej Kramaric. Ivan Perisic saved Subasic’s goal kick from going out on the left sideline as his flick forward to Mario Mandzukic caught Fernandes upfield.
Mandzukic stormed into the penalty area from the left and he had time to send a cross to Kramaric — despite being surrounded by five Russian players at the top of the six-yard box — who hit a low header inside the right post.
Perisic should have given the Vatreni the lead on the hour, but he hit the left post with the goal at his mercy. Akinfeev got lost in no man’s land tracking a cross to his left post and then he flapped at a second that went back across goal while colliding with two defenders.
The ball fell to Rakitic, who wisely pushed the ball to his right to get space to shoot from eight yards, but he dragged his right-footed shot as it caromed off the woodwork and across the face of goal before spinning over the end line for a Russia goal kick.
Croatia dominated possession for the next stretch of play, with Russia interrupting with a half-chance in the 72nd minute when Alexander Erokhin skied a 10-yard header off a cross by Fernandes on the right.
Subasic tweaked his right hamstring in the final minutes of regulation scrambling to avoid a goal kick, extending the five minutes of second-half stoppage time to seven. The Monaco keeper was tested early in the first extra period, parrying a sharp-angled shot by Fedor Smolov.
The extra half-hour of play, though, may have done Subasic some favors to stay loose ahead of the shootout, though he did crumple to the pitch at the end of the first extra period after catching a deep free kick.
Croatia withstood an early spell of pressure from the host at the start of the match but quickly signaled its willingness to engage. Ante Rebic did well to spin off Fedor Kudriashov near the end line and forced Akinfeev to drop and knock his cross over the end line, and Rebic put the ensuing corner over the bar after it was headed in his direction by Dejan Lovren.
Mandzukic should have done better in the 11th minute when he miscued a right-footed attempt from 12 yards after a smart cross from Sime Vrsajlko on the right. Rebic accelerated through a pack of Sbornaya to draw a free kick 20 yards from goal on the left in the 16th minute, but Rakitic blazed over with a curling right-footed attempt.
Much like its win over Spain, Russia was showing two disciplined banks of defenders as Croatia could not unlock the defense on the flanks as it mainly played narrow and let Modric try to find the killer pass. Ivan Perisic created a nervous moment in the 28th minute when his stooping header from a cross by Vrsajlko skipped wide of the left post.
Both managers made one change to their respective lineups from their round-of-16 victories, with both new players — Cheryshev and Kramaric — scoring the goals.
In what may be one of the more amazing statistics of this World Cup, the Vatreni accrued 12 yellow cards over their five matches, but no player picked up a second booking that would have resulted in missing the England match as all those cautions will be chalked off.