Sochi: Ivan Rakitic scored the winning penalty as Croatia scraped past Russia 4-3 in a shoot-out after a dramatic 2-2 draw Saturday to end the World Cup hopes of the host nation and set up a semifinal showdown against England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Wednesday.
Brazilian-born Mario Fernandes had kept Russia’s dream alive when he headed home in the 115th minute to level the scores and force penalties, but he and Fedor Smolov both failed to convert their spot-kicks.
Croatia, for whom Andrej Kramaric and Domagoj Vida scored, advanced to their first World Cup semifinal since 1998.
After a lively opening, the hosts went ahead out of the blue, in stunning style. Denis Cheryshev collected the ball near the halfway line, exchanged passes with Artem Dzyuba and curled a superb 25-metre shot past the transfixed Danijel Subasic.
Slack defending allowed Croatia to level eight minutes later. Striker Mario Mandzukic ran unchallenged into the penalty area and chipped a low ball back into the centre for an unmarked Kramaric who scored with a glancing header.
Croatia were agonisingly close to taking the lead on the hour when Russia’s defence failed to clear the ball and Ivan Perisic’s shot hit the inside of the post and rebounded harmlessly across the face of the goal.
Croatia took lead through a Vida header in the 12 minutes into the extra-time as he met a corner with a weak downward header which found its way through two sets of legs and rolled into the net.
However to their eternal credit, Russia did not give in and hit back again when Alan Dzagoev floated a free-kick into the area and Fernandes powered home a header to force a shootout.
They can however be proud of their efforts, with a run to the last eight exceeding expectations for a side written off as no-hopers before the tournament.
And it remains to be seen how quickly Croatia – whose President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was watching from the stands in her country’s colours – can recover from this draining night, having also been taken to extra time and penalties by Denmark in the last round.
The arrival of the host nation for the final World Cup match at the Fisht Stadium meant by far the most vibrant atmosphere yet at this Black Sea beach resort.
The Russians, riding a wave of euphoria after unexpectedly knocking out Spain in the previous round, were determined to carry on to a first World Cup semifinal since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic was the star against Denmark for the three saves he made in the penalty shootout that put the team into the World Cup quarterfinals.
What he did against Russia may be viewed back home as a greater accomplishment. Subasic appeared to pick up a significant leg injury in the final moments of the second half on Saturday. He grabbed the back of his leg near his hamstring and it appeared he may need a substitute.
But a replacement never arrived. Subasic was able to play through extra-time and again made a key save in the shootout.