19:00 BST, Saturday 7th July, Samara Stadium (Samara, Russia), ITV One
“What’s the Russian for ‘it’s coming home?'” tweeted Zenit St Petersburg’s official Twitter account following Russia’s dramatic win over Spain. As pompous as it sounds, a dramatic victory on penalties over one of the best national teams in the last decade can indeed give you wings.
A group stage revelation, Croatia will have to step up to repel the hosts, carried by the loud support from the stands and ready to upset yet another favourite of the tournament. The Denmark game didn’t go as planned for the Croatian side.
With the expectations rising following a thunderous performance in the group stage, many expected Croatia to give Denmark a hard lesson, not struggle in a game that became a duel of two great goalkeepers decided in a penalty shootout.
Similarly, nobody expected Russia to kick Spain out. Football, however, is beautiful, or cruel; and the fact is the Spaniards are out and the hard-working and pragmatic Russians continue their dream.
The World Cup semi-final is at stake, a stage both countries have reached only once in their history. Bearing in mind the teams play in the half of the draw considered as less challenging, winning it might bring the World Cup glory incredibly close to either.
Last Time Out
Spain 1-1 Russia [Russia win 4-3 on penalties]
The acrobatic own goal Sergei Ignashevich inadvertently scored was probably the biggest highlight of the game, alongside Igor Akinfeev’s parades.
Stanislav Cherchesov knew that Spain are the side playing the pretty football. To neutralise it, he decided to turn ugly. “I really had to persuade [the players] that this was the only way out,” Cherchesov said proudly.
In the group stage, however, Russia appeared to be a creative, offensive side enjoying possession. The way they upset Spain showed it’s a team confident of their skills and adaptability. They work hard – Russia are one among the teams running the most on the tournament.
They are also clinical and, ahead of the Spain game, scored 28.6% of their shots – the most among all the teams that have played in Russia.
That’s why they emerge as a dangerous opponent, especially with thousands of fanatic fans roaring from the stands. And, they are aware of the opportunity that presents itself to the Russian Bear. “This is football. What can you say?,” added Cherchesov.
Croatia 1-1 Denmark [Croatia win 3-2 on penalties]
With two goals scored within the first four minutes, Croatia and Denmark were dangerously on route to finish the game with a double-digit score.
So instead, they decided not to score at all and organised a warm-up session for their goalkeepers as both Kasper Schmeichel and Danijel Subasic had their hands full for 120 minutes.
It was a disappointing performance from the Croatians considering how immense they were in the group stage – Lionel Messi would surely nod with approval.
They looked shocked by conceding a goal in the first minute and, having equalised just after, decided to take extra care while dealing with the problematic Danes.
On top of that, Luka Modric missed a penalty just before the clock showed 120 minutes, sending the game into the penalty shootout. Fortunately for the team, Modric didn’t repeat his mistakes, Subasic is a great shot stopper and Croatia escaped the axe.
It could have been a one-off slump, though. Croatia have scored six goals from open play, on par with Brazil and only behind Belgium with nine. They still have the maestro Luka Modric playing for them. And, the prolific Mario Mandzukic ready to haunt the taught Russian defenders.
Stanislav Cherchesov changed his preferred line-up to stop the billion-pass football played by Spain.
He will likely switch to playing four at the back, however, and try to play more with the ball rather than give it to the Croats and chase them for 90 minutes or more.
Denis Cheryshev could be on his way back to the starting line-up to give the side an extra sharpness. Yuri Zhirkov is injured and will sit out for Vladimir Granat at left back. Aleksandr Samedov has also been training alone.
Zlatko Dalic probably won’t shuffle his starting XI much. They need the Modric-Rakitic duo to dictate the tempo and Ivan Perisic to pester Russian defenders as well as supply Mandzukic with precise crosses.
Key Battle: Luka Modric (Croatia) vs Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
There is no doubt that Modric has a tremendous influence on his team performance, regardless if that’s Real Madrid or Croatia. He is the passer. The pace-setter. The brain and often the heart of the team.
Although less impressive against tough Denmark, underestimating him could be fatal. When in form, Modric can threaten Russia from different positions – delivering a perfect pass or cross to Mario Mandzukic, or roll up his sleeves (and shorts) and thump one from outside the box.
Once he gets the team running, it will be very difficult to stop – so how to stop Modric is what Cherchesov probably spends the most time pondering ahead of the game.
It’s difficult to be more flattered than when Robert Pires labels you “the Russian Modric”. Aleksandr Golovin’s play and influence on the team are indeed similar to what Modric does for Croatia.
Against Spain, Golovin ran a record 16km, more than anybody during the 2018 World Cup. He also created five chances for his teammates in the group stage, more than any other Russian player.
Amid transfer speculations linking Golovin with a move to Chelsea, Pires is convinced the Russian prodigy is ready for the Premier League challenge. Before he follows the footsteps of Luka Modric, however, and moves to England, he will need to meet his doppelganger face-to-face.
The Denmark game – a one-off incident?
Croatia went through the group stage with lightning speed and their formidable displays made them an early favourite for the title. When the Denmark game came about, though, the fairy-tale finished and the Croats banged their heads against the Danish wall as early as in the first minute of the game.
Although the wall eventually crumbled, some questions remained unanswered. Have Croatia run out of fuel? Or was it only this one crisis that almost every team has to overcome in a tournament like World Cup?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to the former, Croatia are in trouble. Russia cunningly capitalised on Spain’s troubles in the last-16 and will not hesitate to adapt and repeat it against them.
Then, some tactical changes might be needed and perhaps somebody fresher like Mateo Kovacic should get a chance to sort things out in the midfield and help Modric orchestrate the team’s play.
If it’s the latter, the other teams should start biting their nails nervously as Croatia are a team that ooze quality and, having survived their crisis, will be very difficult to stop.
What will Stan do?
“Thank God my footballers understood what I was telling them. They trusted me,” said Stanislav Cherchesov after eliminating Spain. The Russian coach, by planning the Spain clash to the tiniest details, has shown he’s got an analytical mind and tactical flexibility.
He also seems to have created a very beneficial rapport with the players – something the big-name foreign coaches on hefty contracts who have managed the team in the recent years failed to achieve.
With the surprise strategy crafted specifically for Spain, Stanislav Cherchesov and his Russia side only became more unpredictable for Zlatko Dalic.
However, the Croat has shown he’s got some aces up his sleeves too. After thrashing Argentina, Dalic revealed he prepared three different tactics to stop Messi. Not one. Three. And, it worked out perfectly.
The tactical battle between the two coaches will be fascinating to follow and potentially crucial for the end result.
Prediction: Russia 1-2 Croatia
Croatia are a team with much more quality than Russia. It might be a close game, though, as Russia proved themselves a challenging opponent.
Nevertheless, Croatia seem to be a much more complete side with both collective play and individual quality, and that should trump the Russians’ cold, calculated football.
Listen to the RealSport football writers preview all the action ahead of the World Cup quarter-finals in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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