MOSCOW — For a month of spellbinding soccer, Russia has wrapped its arms around this big, beautiful World Cup and celebrated the sport from the Baltic to the Pacific and in 11 host cities.
What the host country did not expect — not in its kookiest dreams — was being in position to rally behind its low-ranked national team for more than a few matches.
On Saturday in Sochi, the hosts were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Croatia on penalty kicks, 4-3, after a 2-2 draw that included goals by both sides in the 30 minutes of extra time.
Along the way, however, a lightly talented squad that many feared would not even survive the group stage galvanized the country and destroyed expectations, falling one step short of the Soviet Union’s 1966 ride to the final four.
This Russian team won its first two games easily in securing passage to the round of 16, then upset Spain on penalty kicks.
“We said we could only prove our worth by working hard,” Coach Stanislav Cherchesov said of his overachievers. “The people did not only start trusting us, but they are in love with us. The entire country is in love with us. They know what the national team is worth. We hope we have changed the situation for the better.”
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Russia had won all of two matches in its previous three World Cup appearances, falling short of advancing to the knockout stage, and it failed to qualify for the tournament altogether three other times in that stretch.
In phone calls before and after the match, Cherchesov said, President Vladimir Putin offered words of support.
This ride ended at sold-out Fisht Stadium, but not before the Russians went ahead in the first half on a magnificent goal by Denis Cheryshev, his fourth of the tournament. Croatia drew even before intermission and took the lead in extra time, but Russia forced the tiebreaker when Mario Fernandes, a Brazilian-born naturalized citizen, scored with about five minutes left.
In the shootout, however, Fernandes missed the target in the third round, clearing the way for Croatia to become the first team since Argentina in 1990 to win consecutive matches on penalty kicks. As he did against Denmark, Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic sealed the victory by converting in the fifth round.
“We’ve achieved something big, but this team can achieve more,” midfielder Luka Modric said. “We want to bring a medal home. What is on that medal, we’ll see.”
After logging 120 minutes in back-to-back games, the exhausted Croatians will be at a disadvantage in Wednesday’s semifinal against England at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The last time they made the final four was 1998 in France, their first appearance since gaining independence following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
“This was not a beautiful game; it was a battle,” said Coach Zlatko Dalic, who was left in tears at the end of the moving night.
Russia played with greater ambition than it did against technically superior Spain, abandoning airtight defensive tactics for a style more conducive to attacking the Croatians.
“They surprised us,” Modric said. “They pressed us high, and we could not build up our play. Our style was cramped.”
Cheryshev made things more uncomfortable for Croatia in the 31st minute by striking a 25-yard shot into the top left corner.
Croatia answered eight minutes later, traversing the field in short order and capitalizing on space left by Fernandes on the flank. Mario Mandzukic infiltrated the penalty area and crossed to Andrej Kramaric for a seven-yard header.
Croatia controlled most of the second half, pinning back the Russians for long stretches. Ivan Perisic almost cracked the deadlock with an eight-yard bid that struck the inside of the left post.
Croatia’s breakthrough finally came 11 minutes into extra time when Domagoj Vida headed Modric’s corner kick through a tangle of players and into the right side of the net.
Russia was done, or so it seemed. Inspired by the audience, it responded in the 115th minute when Fernandes was left unmarked at the six-yard box and nodded in Alan Dzagoev’s free kick.
Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was the hero of the shootout against Spain, but in this one, his save in the second round wasn’t enough. Croatia converted its last three chances to set up the showdown with England.
“Another drama for us,” Modric said. “We showed the character again.”
— Steven Goff
Penalty kick summary
Russia’s first attempt: Save!
Subasic swats away Smolov’s slow attempt with his left palm.
Croatia’s first attempt: Goal!
Brozovic high and to the right, past the keeper that guessed correctly.
Russia’s second attempt: Goal!
The keeper guesses wrong and Dzagoev sends one low and to the right.
Croatia’s second attempt: Save!
Akinfeev guesses correctly.
Russia’s third attempt: Miss!
Fernandes drags his penalty wide and to the left.
Croatia’s third attempt: Goal!
The Russian keeper gets a hand on Modric’s penalty but pushes it into the post and it careens in.
Russia’s fourth attempt: Goal!
Ignashevich batters his penalty into the bottom left. Subasic went the wrong way.
Croatia’s fourth attempt: Goal!
Vida’s heads in easily.
Russia’s fifth attempt: Goal!
Kuziaev’s easy kick to the left puts all the pressure on Croatia.
Croatia’s fifth attempt: Goal!
After all this time, Croatia is headed to the semifinals! Rakitic has the keeper going the wrong way and sends the ball left.
Headed to penalties
And despite the elation that came with Russia’s equalizer, everyone on the pitch just kind of stands there as extra time runs out. So. Very. Tired.
Mario Fernandes gets his noggin on a free kick to send the ball to the left edge of the goal to even things up. Somehow, these tired players will go on.
What a save!
Croatia’s hobbled keeper, who appears to be dealing with a hamstring issue, nonetheless hangs onto what could’ve easily been a goal. He punches away another one just moments later!
Russia gets a chance
Moments after Croatia’s goal, Russia gets a corner kick of its own, which Yerokhin heads right.
After Russia misses on the other end, Croatia streaks down the field and scores off a corner kick! It’s a header from Domagoj Vida, who strips his shirt off in celebration and consequently receives a yellow card.
Croatia forced to sub
Croatia has spent a ton of time on the field in these past two games, and it’s starting to show. It was temporarily down a man while Sime Vrsaljko received treatment after it looked like he tweaked something — there was no contact, but he grimaced as he made a pass before calling the trainer over. Croatia eventually had to use its bonus-time substitution to get him off the field.
Full time: Russia 1, Croatia 1
That’ll be it for regulation. On to extra time.
This might be trouble for Croatia. Just before stoppage time, keeper Danijel Subasic looked like he suffered a hamstring cramp, and Croatia is out of substitutes. Subasic played on after a visit from the trainer, but that could spell bad news as this match appears headed for extra time, and perhaps a penalty shootout.
Russia free kick
The Russians have a free kick a few yards away from the left corner of the box, but Golovin’s header is cleared. We continue apace, with five minutes to go.
Russia makes moves
Croatia is holding the ball 66 percent of the time and doing not a whole lot with it, but at least Russia is taking advantage of its touches. Aleksandr Yerokhin sent a header just over the bar in Russia’s last attack, but it’s good for the host nation that it’s being aggressive.
Croatia came so close to scoring its second goal when Ivan Perisic curled a good-looking ball into the bottom of the post before skittering across the face of the goal without crossing the line. What a lucky break for Russia.
Halftime: Russia 1, Croatia 1
The score reflects just how balanced this game has been, with Russia’s prolific Cheryshev and Croatia’s Kramaric providing the difference-makers so far. In fact, those two provided the only shots on goal we’ve seen in this match. We might be in for a lengthy one in Sochi.
Game on. Croatia equalizes eight minutes later when it catches the Russian defense snoozing and Andrej Kramaric sends a header dead-on into the goal.
Well, that came out of nowhere. After something of a slow match so far, Russia pounces when Denis Cheryshev scores his fourth goal of the World Cup following a crafty run. A powerful shot puts Russia on top.
Ovechkin hits the fan fest
As if the Russian fans needed any more excitement, Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin brought the Stanley Cup to the fan festival before the match. The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan was on the (hectic) scene.
One change per side: Russia replaced Yuri Zhirkov with Denis Cheryshev, and Croatia put Andrej Kramaric in for Marcelo Brozovic.
- Previous results: Defeated Saudi Arabia, 5-0. Defeated Egypt, 3-1. Lost to Uruguay, 3-0. Defeated Spain in the round of 16 in a penalty shootout, 4-3, after drawing 1-1.
- Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 1966.
- Notable: This is Russia’s first quarterfinal match since 1970.
- FIFA world ranking: 70. Elo world ranking: 41.
- Previous results: Defeated Nigeria, 2-0. Defeated Argentina, 3-0. Defeated Iceland, 2-1. Defeated Denmark in the round of 16 in a penalty shootout, 3-2, after drawing 1-1.
- Best World Cup finish: Semifinal, 1998.
- Notable: Croatia’s best finish came at the first World Cup it ever qualified for.
- FIFA world ranking: 20. Elo world ranking: 6.
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