World Cup Quarterfinal: Croatia look to crash Russia's party
Russia and Croatia were two of the dark horses heading into the World Cup. Both were in promising groups. Progression was the only major expectation from either. Now, they are set to play a World Cup quarterfinal. The match is set for the Fisht Stadium in Sochi.
Russia's confidence rose with two early wins against Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Sbornaya confirmed qualification with those six points. Then, Spain let them hang around in the Round of 16. No one expected the hosts to make it past La Roja. They fought valiantly and won the penalty lottery.
Meanwhile, Croatia won all four games on the way to this match. Nigeria and, surprisingly, Argentina were easy prey before Zlatko Dalic's reserves saw off Iceland. Denmark proved a tougher challenge. The Danish Dynamite matched Croatia tactically, cramping their natural style. It took heroics from keeper Daniel Subasic in the penalty phase for the Blazers to reach their first World Cup quarter-final since 1998.
The two sides have met three times. Russia haven't won but eked out two goalless draws. That is their modus operandi. The team didn't even win a single game in the Confederations Cup but have still made the quarterfinals here.
'Mother Russia' have surprised everyone with their World Cup run. Their effort in the last-16 match against Spain was more than commendable. Despite going a goal down, the Sbornaya didn't lose focus; they kept to their game plan. Stanislav Cherchesov's men defended deep and deprived La Roja any space to work the ball. If that wasn't enough, the lowest-ranked side in this tournament had the composure and mental strength to edge a former World Cup winner in a penalty shootout.
The Russians showed physical strength, too. The hosts have collectively outrun every team in the World Cup, despite going a man down against Uruguay. Desire. The hosts' antics have well and truly kicked off a major party in Eastern Europe.
Stanislav Cherchesov is expected to revert back to a back-four after left-back Yuri Zhirkov's injury. Midfielder Alan Dzagoev is on his way back from a hamstring injury. He might feature in this tie. Igor Smolnikov has served his suspension but is likely to start the game off the bench with Roman Zobnin, Yuri Gazinskiy and Aleksandr Golovin occupying the central midfield roles. Right back Mario Fernandes, winger Denis Cheryshev and striker Artem Dzuyba will hope to continue their excellent form. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev's confidence would be at an all-time high. He must prepare for another busy night.
Don't expect Russia to make tactical changes. Their shape is different from necessity but they'll sit deep and look to hit Croatia on the break.
Aleksandr Golovin and Fedor Smolov are on yellow cards. FIFA's amnesty doesn't take hold until after the match. If they receive a second booking, they will miss the semifinal if Russia wins this match.
Croatia also needed penalties to see off Denmark in the Round Of 16. The game was more open than Spain vs Russia but wasn't what anyone would call expansive. Both teams tried to control the midfield and create chances. The opening minutes were electrifying but both sides quickly shored up their defences. Croatia's intensity faded. They didn't look like the same team that toyed with Group D.
The Blazer's major strength is where it should be, up the middle. Goalkeeper Daniel Subasic made three saves in the penalty shootout after having kept two clean sheets. Dejan Lovren is still enjoying a renaissance that began late in Liverpool's season. Then comes the midfield axis of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Marcelo Brozovic. Legs, experience, creativity, and guile. If they were taller, they'd be the Golden State Warriors. The trio are the team's heart. The big man up-top, Mario Mandzukic, finally scored against Denmark. He will be hungry for more. The wide-men are quick and tenacious. That will add a wrinkle that Spain could not against the Russians. Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic will cause major problems with their movement.
Left-back Ivan Strinic is a doubt after coming off injured against Denmark. Josip Pivaric proved an able deputy. He will start in Strinic's absence.
Croatia must be very careful with their tackling. Eight players are on yellow cards, including Rakitic, Rebic, Mandzukic and Sime Vrsaljko.
These teams have conceded the least shots at the World Cup. Expect a very tight game with rigid defences. Russia will put men behind the ball, ceding possession. Croatia have enough quality to make Russia pay. Their midfield and attack have gelled well. Zlatko Dalic's crew and are likely to continue their World Cup run at the hosts' expense. I just cannot see anything except a Croatia win, but, full disclosure, I thought the same regarding Spain.