The World Cup that just keeps on giving.
To Belgium, to France, to England. Maybe, just maybe, to Croatia.
They outbattled and outlasted Russia on penalties in Sochi on Saturday, when the hosts pulled themselves back from the brink and almost pulled off another incredible feat.
Twenty years and a few more days since, Croatia’s class of 1998 have company. Boban, Suker and Prosinecki budge up, joined now by Modric, Rakitic, Mandzukic and all the rest, World Cup semi-finalists and hopes imbued by the possibility of what is to come.
Croatia clambered past Russia at a rampant Fisht Stadium on the shores of the Black Sea, needing extra-time and a nerve-shredding shootout and every last ounce from weary limbs to seal a date with England in Moscow on Wednesday.
Fedor Smolov missed, so too Mario Fernandes. But Mateo Kovacic wasn’t made to rue his failure to convert, as Ivan Rakitic did what he did against Denmark in the last 16, keeping his head when all around him lost theirs.
Croatia survived, Russia’s race was run. The victors progress, but Stanislav Cherchesov’s side should be credited for more than staying the course. Discounted before the tournament, they far exceed expectations when all they were supposed to do was flicker briefly.
Russia had promised to burn some more, when Fernandes headed home five minutes from time in extra-time to level the scores at 2-2. By then, Denis Cheryshev had thundered Russia into a half-hour lead, Andrej Kramaric responded almost immediately and, in the 100th minute, Domagoj Vida directed goalwards a header from a corner and the ball wafted in.
Eventually Croatia waded through, bodies practically scattered everywhere, and Russia waved goodbye. When the dust settles on another epic World Cup 2018 encounter, they should be proud of what they have been able to give.
Where to begin? Cheryshev’s strike was stunning. Collecting a pass from Artem Dzyuba, he evaded Modric’s desperate slide with one touch and with the second arched a shot past the rooted Danijel Subasic.
The stadium erupted, so too the Russia bench, all except manager Cherchesov, who cut the air of a man who’d reinstated Cheryshev to the starting line-up and just been handsomely rewarded. Dropped for Spain in the last 16, the Villarreal midfielder now had four goals in five matches this month. Only Harry Kane has more. Most have been corkers.
The lead lasted eight minutes. That’s when Mario Mandzukic was played in down Russia’s right and cut a pass back to an unmarked Kramaric. Croatia’s No 9 stooped slightly to place his header past Igor Akinfeev. Suddenly, and for the first time, the Fisht fell silent.
As his staff and substitutes leapt from their dugout, Zlatko Dalic stood simply with hands in pockets. Straightaway, he and Dejan Lovren were deep in conversation, quickly joined by a tracksuited Vedran Corluka. The Croatia set-up wasn’t quite right; Russia had had too much time in midfield, too much space to press forward and pull the crowd along with them.
So Croatia resolved to drag the game back in their favour. After half-time, and with Luka Modric’s influence growing, Kramaric attempted an audacious overhead kick, but didn’t connect properly. Ante Rebic let fly from just outside the penalty area, but failed to hit the target. In the clearest of the three chances, Ivan Perisic controlled a loss ball in the box and screwed his effort off the inside of a Russian post, but the ball ricocheted and rolled tantalisingly across the goalline and back out. On the bench, Croatian heads were held in Croatian hands.
Only an hour had gone. But Russia resisted, defending as deep as they have for most of the tournament, as if their lives depended on it, as if the 44,287 supporters all around them and the millions watching elsewhere depended on it too.
There were fleeting moments on the break, when they reeled in Croatia and rushed forward, a red and white wave that scampered scuttled. The crowd would shriek as one, a sharp break from the constant hubbub, then revert to their chants, buoyed by the beating of the drum and the racing of pulses.
With 18 minutes remaining, Smolov, on for Cheryshev, leant back and looped a header over the bar. At the other end, Modric almost got a shot away, the ball spilled to right-back Sime Vrsaljko, whose attempt was blocked.
As the clock ticked towards 90 minutes, the boos and the whistles rang out with Croatia in possession; the Russia bench tried to whip up their fans further. In the final minute, Subasic seemed to tweak his hamstring in collecting the ball. Croatia had made their three changes; Subasic had to see through to extra-time.
Croatians were dropping like flies. Vrsaljko limped off, Corluka sauntered on for his 102 cap, Mandzukic slumped to the turf not once, but twice.
Then Vida connected with a corner, the ball floated through players and into Akinfeev’s goal. It was soft, almost slipped by in slow motion, and that appeared to be that.
But only it wasn’t. Five minutes from potential penalties, Fernandes flung himself into the air and thudded a header past Subasic. Fans bounded over seats, they fell into each other’s arms, some genuinely cried. The Fisht was shaken to its very core. Croatia also.
Yet, to their infinite credit, they regrouped and then, in the frantic final throes, rebounded. Marcelo Brozovic scored in the shootout, Modric just about, then Vida and, finally, Rakitic. A World Cup that keeps on giving gave some more. Both teams gave everything, and in the end, one just about managed to offer that little bit extra when they felt nothing left. Croatia continue. Russia depart with dreams shattered, but heads held high.