Croatia’s struggles against Denmark was a damning indictment that a team’s form during the World Cup group stage would go on to have little, if not no, impact on how they’d fare during the business end of the tournament.
It is another matter that the Croats might hit top gear once again. Some might argue that they are facing the weakest of the eight teams who are still alive in the competition. That, though, would be unfair on the plucky, resolute hosts, who have already exceeded expectations. Anything from here would be a bonus for Russia, who are playing their first World Cup quarter-final.
After the heady highs of the group stages, Denmark brought Croatia crashing down to earth. The team that outclassed each and every opponent in the group stages – once even with nine changes from their previous match – came up short against an inspired Denmark side. The Danes not only showed more bite in attack, but were able to nullify the formidable Croatian midfield for long spells.
That should be one of the foremost concerns for Zlatko Dalic, who stands on the cusp of taking the Vatreni to the semi-finals for only the second time. The mood of 1998 is ringing loudly around the Croatian camp. Like Davor Suker in France two decades ago, midfield maestro Luca Modric is the orchestrator in Russia.
Arriving at the showpiece event after steering Real Madrid to a historic third consecutive Champions League crown, the Croatian captain has shown no signs of slowing down.
Croatia’s magic five
Croatia’s five, adorned by Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic, Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic may stake a claim to be the most complete of the ongoing edition at least, even if they are by any means an ode to the great “magic square” of France in the 1980s, comprising of Michel Platini, Alan Giresse, Luis Fernandez, and Jean Tigana.
So power-packed is the Croatian spine that a gifted Mateo Kovacic is resigned to playing a supporting role. It will come as little surprise that the Croats will see more of the ball during the contest against Russia.
For Russia, the “Modric role” falls to senior player Alexander Samedov, who, without much fuss has gone on to quietly make a name for himself. Both teams lack an out-and-out destroyed a la N’Golo Kante or Casemiro. But then Russia and Croatia seldom lose shape. Does that mean they will cancel each other out? Spain, despite completing 1000 passes in the game, wilted in front of the Russian defence.
While Igor Akinfeev stole the show in the shootout, the Russian goalie hardly stretched his limbs or hands during normal and extra time.
Against Croatia, coach Stanislav Cherchesov will not only have to ensure that Modric or Rakitic don’t dictate terms but ensure that their opponents don’t pose threat from the flanks. A playmaker-heavy Spain could not offer a different dimension.The Spaniards had little pace to burn and did not feed their striker Diego Costa enough to work with. But Croatia would pose a far different challenge.
However, what a story it would be if the Russians make it to the last four. How many would have even tipped them to get out of their group, which had Uruguay and Egypt along with Saudi Arabia.
Their patchy form leading up to the World Cup and Russia’s plummeting Fifa ranking were under the scanner. Recently, there has been a political twist too with president Vladimir Putin reportedly putting the team under pressure to deliver. Such reports were duly quashed by spokespersons but the sadistic pleasure in the bureaucratic Putin getting his team to punch above their weight at gunpoint continues to be a running gag on social media.
But their emphatic win over Spain is surely one of the upsets of the tournament and that would have given them the belief that anything is possible from hereon.
Don’t be surprised if this encounter also turns into a cagey, dour, attack vs defence face-off. If that is the pattern of this game, Russians won’t relent.
Not with old warhorse Sergei Ignashevich organising their backline. Illya Kutepov and Manuel Fernandes made a name for themselves against Spain, leaving no quarter for Isco, Koke and Andres Iniesta to ping passes behind the defence. Goals for Russia will depend on what Alexander Golovin and Artem Dzyuba can conjure up.
“We have come so far but we don’t intend to stop here,” Dalic said after scraping past Denmark. Croatia are dreaming and so are Russia.
For one, it is about reaching unchartered territory from near obscurity. For the other, it is living up to their previous ‘golden generation’ of Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Co.