If the Croatia vs Denmark round-of-16 match of the Fifa World Cup 2018 was a big-budget Hollywood movie, the starting sequence and the climax scenes were right out of the Avengers franchise, while everything that came in between was from Transformers – high intensity, edge-of-the-seat drama sandwiching just a bunch of people running around aimlessly, shouting at each other.
As the dust settles, however, Croatia wouldn’t care one bit about how they got there, as the reality is that, on Monday, they are still in the World Cup, while brave Denmark and an unfortunate Kasper Schmeichel are heading back home.
Just put yourself in his shoes. Imagine saving three penalties in one game during the knockout stages of the World Cup – one of them deep into the second half of extra-time and two in the shootout – and still end up on the losing side.
That’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy and Kasper seems like a chap who couldn’t be anyone’s enemy. It was a heroic performance that was upstaged by his counterpart Danijel Subasic. The Croatian goalkeeper pulled off a feat that has been achieved only before in World Cup history. He saved three shots in the penalty shootout.
Tough luck, Kasper.
All the talk before the match, after Spain’s elimination from the World Cup, was about how Croatia were now the favourites to reach the final from their half of the draw. A look at the teams left in that half tells you that it is a valid claim: Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, England, Colombia, Croatia, and Denmark, as things stood before kickoff. This was a golden chance for Croatia’s golden generation to go all the way.
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While they did take one step closer to achieving the dream, the way they played against Denmark left a lot to be desired.
Coming into the game with three wins in their group-stage fixtures (only two other teams – Belgium and Uruguay – managed that feat), Croatia looked flat for the majority of the 120 minutes. To concede a goal in the opening minute can be a shock to the system, but the Croats handled that part well enough, equalising in less than two minutes. This was now the quickest that both teams had scored in a World Cup finals match, ever.
Now, that sort of madness is not something you can expect from the rest of the game, but even when the dust settled, Croatia looked the more accomplished team in the first half. While Denmark’s plan of shackling Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic – arguably the best central midfield pairing at the World Cup – worked well, Croatia were able to fashion chances through Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic.
But as they game progressed, Croatia regressed. If someone was just tuning into the World Cup to watch the second half and extra-time of this game in Nizhny Novgorod, they would have been wondering how the heck did Croatia manage to make it this far. They were ponderous in possession, largely playing within their own half and in the midfield.
Denmark’s closing down proved a tough proposition handle alright, but this was not the team that harried and hustled against Argentina. This was a team that looked bogged down by the pre-match talk of them being favourites now. If coach Zlatko Dalic wanted to see a side that asserted themselves on the game, he would have had to agree it was their opponents in the second half.
Speaking after the game, Slaven Bilic, part of that famous Croatia squad in 1998 that finished third in the World Cup, raised questions about the mental fortitude of this side. He made the point that this team is considerably more talented, personnel-wise, than the 1998 squad but the performance against Denmark made him question whether they can handle the pressure of the knockout stages at the World Cup.
In a way, he was right. That second half performance certainly backs up Bilic’s worry about this team going far. The legs looked heavy despite (or because?) of a nine-day break between their matches. But, in Luka Modric, they also have a leader who showed immense character to step up and take a penalty in the shootout after missing one in the extra-time.
Putting your name in the shootout in a World Cup knockout game is a tough ask mentally, as it is. But to do that knowing that a second miss would scar him for life – that takes loads of character, and Modric showed that. As a leader, he wasn’t going to back away now.
Ultimately, Croatia would look back at this game with relief more than anything. Deep down, the coach and the players would know that the only way ahead after that performance is upward. To reach the quarter-final of the World Cup after playing poorly is, perhaps, an indication that this team does have what it takes.
“You have to earn your luck and the lads earned theirs,” he added. “Without luck you cannot do anything in life.”
If you are rooting for Croatia, you can only hope they didn’t use up all their luck before a quarter-final against Russia.