NIZHNY NOVGOROD: Croatia came back after conceding in the opening minute to earn a World Cup quarter-final berth after edging Denmark 3-2 in a penalty shootout after the two sides drew 1-1 in the round of 16 matches on Sunday.
They could have wrapped up the result five minutes from the end of extra time but Luka Modric had his penalty saved by Kasper Schmeichel as a largely pedestrian match produced a pulsating finish.
However, the Croatia captain returned to bravely take one of the post-match kicks as goalkeeper Danijel Subasic saved three of Denmark’s efforts to set up a quarter-final meeting with hosts Russia, who also won in a penalty shootout earlier on Sunday against Spain after a 1-1 draw.
It was Modric’s sublime pass that put Ante Rebic through on goal, before being brought down by Mathias Jorgensen, and offered Croatia a chance to win just before the shootout.
But with only five minutes left, Schmeichel made a smart save to keep the 1-1 stalemate intact.
“It was a very difficult game. We conceded in the first minute, then we equalised. We missed a sitter. We miss penalties. We had chances but we stayed strong, mentally composed, and we won eventually,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.
Two chaotic goals in the opening four minutes made for a rollicking start at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. However, it proved a false dawn as the spectacle faded with both sides choosing caution as their priority given the rare chance to reach the last eight.
Jorgensen took all of 57 seconds to breach the Croatia defence at the end of a long throw-in by Jonas Knudsen, stabbing at the ball with his left foot as he took it off teammate Thomas Delaney.
Subasic got a hand to Jorgensen’s toe-poke but effectively deflected the ball across his own line.
There was an element of comedy to the fourth-minute equaliser for Mario Mandzukic as Denmark’s early advantage quickly disappeared.
A kick across the Danish defence was firmly hit away by Henrik Dalsgaard but straight into the face of teammate Andreas Christensen, creating a pinball effect that saw the ball fall for Mandzukic, who then expertly turned it into the net from close range.
The anticipated influence of Christian Eriksen for the Danes and Croatia’s Modric held out hopes of more mouth-watering action but their craft was only evident in patches.
Eriksen did shave the top of the woodwork just before halftime with a speculative effort while, at the other end, Ivan Rakitic forced a smart save from Schmeichel.
After the interval, the chances were even more sparse although Croatia did up the tempo towards the end of regulation time only to run into a resolute Denmark defence.
In extra time, Knudsen’s long throws proved the most dangerous attacking weapon but eventually, it was penalties that delivered a winner.
“It’s a strange feeling. Huge disappointment. But also enormous pride about our team,” said Schmeichel.
“I think today we had the opportunity. I think we were the better team in the second half and the extra time.
“I don’t think we had any luck. I don’t think the referee liked us today. It is difficult to accept and put into words. There are many emotions right now.”