After pulling off the biggest upset in World Cup history in terms of FIFA rankings, host Russia looks to continue an incredible and unlikely journey by making its first semifinal appearance in 52 years as it takes on the underdog role again in the round of eight Saturday versus Croatia in Sochi.
The Sbornaya appeared as though they had done their job as hosts in reaching the knockout round, where they were expected to be little more than fodder opposite 2010 champion Spain. Separated by 60 spots in the FIFA rankings and with the dubious distinction of being the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup at No. 70, Russia opted to defend at all costs and try its luck on the counter against a La Roja team that would spend the match cycling the ball around Russia’s half of the pitch with little success.
The teams traded fluke goals in the first half — Russia conceding first via an own goal by defender Sergey Iganshevich before equalizing through Artem Dzyuba’s penalty after Spain’s Gerard Pique was whistled for a handball in the box — before the battle of attrition was fully waged over the second 45 minutes and 30 of extra time.
Igor Akinfeev, the most decorated keeper in Russian history, then became the toast of a nation as he made two saves during the shootout. He successfully turned away Koke in the third round before ending the match by getting his top leg to a shot by Iago Aspas in the fifth while diving away from the ball after guessing incorrectly.
“I really had to persuade [my players] that this was the only way out,” Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov said. “We don’t like this kind of structure but this is what we had to do with three defenders. Thank God my footballers understood what I was telling them. They trusted me.
“I spoke with every player individually more than I had in the past and I had to explain to them why, where, what, and it has worked out as you see. I believe that my players have been victorious because they have adhered to my strategy.”
The result has turned Russia into a football-mad country, with the scenes of celebration spreading throughout the country in wildfire fashion. For a country with such little success on the biggest stage — the only previous occasion the Sbornaya advanced to the knockout round of any major tournament since 1990 came at the 2008 European Championship — the chance to reach the World Cup semifinals for the first time since claiming fourth in England in 1966 borders on an impossible fantasy they are excitedly willing to believe can happen.
On the other side is Croatia, which is seeking a stirring run of its own to the semifinals for the first time in 20 years since its maiden appearance in 1998. The Vatreni, who looked so good in topping a group that included two-time champion Argentina, finally had to endure some suffering in the round of 16 as they were taken to penalties by Denmark.
After the teams traded goals in the opening four minutes, there was little in the way of offense as the match settled into a cagey affair and should have been settled in 120 minutes had Luka Modric converted a penalty four minutes before time that would have all but certainly seen his side through to the round of eight.
Modric, however, was stoned by Kasper Schmeichel. He did redeem himself by narrowly converting in the shootout, but it was Danjiel Subasic who would earn top plaudits as he became just the second keeper in World Cup history to stop three penalties in helping the Vatreni advance.
And they needed all three since Schmeichel stopped two of Croatia’s spot kicks in the before Ivan Rakitic ended a nerve-fraying clash by ripping his attempt into the lower left corner.
“Since 2008 we have never gone beyond this first knockout game and it was very important for us to get that monkey off our back,” Modric told the official website of FIFA, who missed the opening penalty in their shootout defeat to Turkey a decade ago.
“We have secured a great result after many years of trying and that means a lot to me. I’ve been in this team since 2008 and we have experienced several unlucky defeats in that time, particularly against Turkey and Portugal [at EURO 2016]. We needed some luck this time and I think we deserved it.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 14 — Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0 (Gazinsky 12, Cheryshev 43, Dzyuba 71, Cheryshev 90+1, Golovin 90+4)
June 19 — Russia 3, Egypt 1 (Fathi 47′ (og), Cheryshev 59′, Dzyuba 62′, Salah 73′ (PK))
June 25 — Russia 0, Uruguay 3 (Suarez 10′, Cheryshev 23′ (og), Cavani 90′)
July 1 — Russia 1, Spain 1 (Ignashevich 12′ (og), Dzyuba 41′ (PK)) (Russia wins 4-3 on PKs)
June 16 — Croatia 2, Nigeria 0 (Etebo 32′ (og), Modric 71′ (PK))
June 21 — Croatia 3, Argentina 0 (Rebic 53′, Modric 80′, Rakitic 90+1′)
June 26 — Croatia 2, Iceland 1 (Badelj 50′, G. Sigurdsson 76′ (PK), Perisic 90′)
July 1 — Croatia 1, Denmark 1 (Jorgensen 1′, Mandzukic 4′) (Croatia wins 3-2 on PKs)
Thouch Cherchesov used a five-man back against Spain and opted to bring Denis Cheryshev off the bench, the hedge is that he will go to a more traditional four in the back. Fedor Kudryashov likely will get the start at left back with Yuri Zhirkov not expected to be available due to injury.
While attacking midfielder Adam Dzagoev is expected to be available, one wonders how risky it would be to reintroduce him straightaway after recovering from a hamstring injury and also when considering how well Aleksandar Golovin has played in a central distributing role.
Croatia could also be forced into a change at left back, where Josip Pivaric would slot in for the injured Ivan Strinic. Otherwise it will be the same 4-1-4-1 set-up for coach Zlatko Dalic, with Mario Mandzukic operating alone up top and supported by Rakitic, Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
Russia is set to welcome back attacking midfielder Dzagoev, who pulled a hamstring 24 minutes into the opening-match victory over Saudi Arabia and has been practicing with the main squad this week. Zhirkov, however, is questionable at best for this match after being forced off at halftime versus Spain due to a calf injury.
Reserve defender Igor Smolnikov is also available for selection after serving his red card suspension in the round of 16. The Sbornaya have five players on a yellow card, most notably midfielders Golovin, Iury Gazinsky and Roman Zobnin and defender Ilya Kupetov.
Zobnin and Kupetov have logged all 390 minutes in Russia’s four matches.
Strinic is an injury concern at left back for Croatia, and reserve midfielder Mateo Kovacic could play despite suffering a shoulder injury shortly after entering against Denmark.
While no one on the Vatreni picked up a yellow card in the round of 16, there are still eight players who could miss a potential semifinal appearance with a second booking. They are starters Rakitic, Mandzukic, Rebic, Marcelo Brozovic and Sime Vrsaljko in addition to reserves Vedran Corluka, Tin Jedvaj and Marko Pjaca.
Reserve striker Nikola Kalinic was sent home after the Nigeria match for refusing to enter as a substitute.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Russia — Denis Cheryshev (MF)
Cherchosev’s decision to bring Cheryshev in for the final 60 minute against Spain could prove vital in this match considering he could be in better condition to latch onto a few long passes and through balls against Croatia’s back four. Second on the team to Dzyuba with two goals, Cheryshev has shown good chemistry with Golovin and a fearlessness in attacking opposing defenses.
Croatia — Ante Rebic (F)
Rebic has become a hot name in transfer talk with some inspired play at the World Cup and is looking for a second goal in Russia after netting the match-winner versus Argentina. While he did not score against Denmark in the round of 16, he has proven to be a handful for opponents as he and Perisic sometimes interchange on the flanks outside of Modric and Rakitic.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
This will be the first World Cup meeting between the teams and just the fourth overall. They played to a pair of scoreless draws in qualifying for the 2000 Euros. Croatia recorded a 3-1 victory at Rostov-on-Don in 2015 as second-half goals by Kalinic, Brozovic and Mandzukic negated a first-half strike from Fedor Smolov.
Per Ladbrokes, Croatia is a solid favorite to win at 6/5 odds, while Russia is listed as a 27/10 underdog. The odds of the match going to penalty kicks after a draw are 2/1. For first goal-scorers, Dzyuba is a slight favorite at 9/2 odds, edging out his teammate Smolov and Mandzukic (5/1).
No one ever wants a dream to end, which is why it has been a treat to see Russia get an extra week of World Cup celebrating in following its side. Shutting down streets in Moscow is an impressive achievement, so hats off to the Sbornaya supporters for living it up.
But reality was always going to set in at some point, and Croatia wants to extend its own dream of getting back to the semifinals. The Vatreni finally dipped in quality in the round of 16, which was expected at some point given the near-flawless contest they played in thrashing Argentina, but that also served as a wake-up call of how much they must work to realize their dream.
Given a second lease on World Cup life, Modric will likely shine in this contest. The Real Madrid midfielder is not in that all-time greats discussion a la Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but where he is among the handful of players who can single-handedly change the course of a match in a multitude of ways is not to be taken for granted.
Unlike Spain, in which the Sbornaya faced a patient build-up and a disciplined yet ultimately toothless offense, Croatia will not give them the luxury of relaxing defensively. Modric and company will be perfectly content to whip balls into the penalty area from every angle for Mandzukic, who can be an absolute menace of a target striker if in the right mood.
Russia’s offense has yet to find a groove against the better teams at this World Cup. For all intents and purposes, if Pique’s arm isn’t outstretched over his head, Spain likely move on with a meandering 1-0 victory given how much the Sbornaya did not see the ball. And that was on top of chasing the Uruguay match with 10 men for an hour.
Maybe Dzagoev changes things, but there are times when chemistry trumps talent, and the way Russia has played with Golovin in the middle of the park, it almost feels prudent to let him pull the strings for 45 minutes and then roll the dice with Dzagoev.
Getting out of Moscow will help Croatia, with Fisht Stadium having a capacity of only 40,000 compared to Luzhniki Stadium and the 81,000 crazed fans that cheered on Russia versus Spain. It will be a road match, sure, but it will be a slightly smaller feeding frenzy.
In the end, too much class in the midfield will be too much for Russia to overcome, which will exit this World Cup with plenty to be proud of after exceeding expectations by getting this far.
PREDICTION: Croatia 2, Russia 0
The winner of this game will play the winner of the Sweden-England match in the semifinals in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Wednesday.