Croatia ended Russia’s unlikely 2018 FIFA World Cup dream when they won 4-3 on penalty kicks to eliminate the gallant hosts, after a dramatic quarter-final which ended 2-2 in extra time.
In Sochi city’s Fisht Olympic Stadium on Saturday, Ivan Rakitic scored the winning penalty kick to send Croatia into a semi-final duel against England on Wednesday in Moscow.
It was a night of unremitting tension, ending the remarkable campaign of Russia, a team ranked 70th in the world.
Fyodor Smolov saw Russia’s first penalty kick saved by goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and, although Russia goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, saved Mateo Kovacic’s kick, the hosts’ fate was sealed a moment later.
The Brazilian-born Mario Fernandes fired completely wide from their third attempt.
In the previous 120 minutes, Denis Cheryshev had rifled Russia in front with a long-range thunderbolt, his fourth goal of the tournament, in the 31st minute.
Andrej Kramaric then headed Croatia level six minutes before halftime.
Croatia went ahead with a soft header in extra time’s 11th minute, but Fernandes headed the host level with five minutes of play remaining to send the game to penalty kicks.
Russia had already surpassed expectations by reaching the last eight, ousting Spain on the way, and there was therefore no fear of going to the shooting range.
After a lively opening, the game dropped off, but it was Russia’s more rustic approach which paid off first as they went ahead surprisingly.
Cheryshev collected the ball near the halfway line, exchanged passes with Artem Dzyuba and curled a 25-metre shot pass Subasic.
But slack defending allowed Croatia to level eight minutes later.
Mario Mandzukic ran unchallenged into the penalty area and chipped a low ball back into the centre where unmarked Kramaric scored with a glancing header.
Croatia were agonisingly close to scoring on the hour when Russia’s defence failed to clear the ball.
Ivan Perisic’s shot hit the inside of the post but rebounded harmlessly across the face of the goal.
Croatia appeared to have the tie in the bag after Vida’s extra-time goal.
But that was not until Fernandes rose to head in a free-kick and sent both teams to their respective second penalty kicks shootout at the tournament.
Croatia will now face England, while Russia will watch the tournament they are hosting from the sidelines.