Croatia’s clash with Denmark in Nizhny Novgorod kicked off in front of a sizeable number of empty seats.
Like every other World Cup host city, a large amount of tickets have been sold to local fans. And, just like every other World Cup host city, most of those supporters were still out on the streets, celebrating Russia’s penalty shoot-out win over Spain, when Sunday’s late game got underway.
Given the spectacle on offer, they will have plenty of reason to keep the party going.
This was the scene of Croatia’s dismantling of Argentina in the group stage, a match that shook the South Americans to such an extent that a minute’s silence was held on one national sports TV channel. That was the game that turned Zlatko Dalic’s side into bankable dark horses for the trophy, drew eulogies by the bucket-load for captain Luka Modric, and prompted the head coach to accept that simply reaching the last 16 “was no longer enough”.
This was a long way from that match, that performance, that Modric. But it was just enough to send Croatia into the quarter-finals.
The first four minutes brought total chaos. Denmark scored after 57 seconds, Mathias Jorgensen somehow forcing Danijel Subasic to block a shot into the corner of his own net after the ball broke loose from a long throw-in.
Croatia had hardly touched the ball before the goal and they didn’t do much with it before getting their equaliser, either, with Mario Mandzukic scoring after Andreas Christensen had blocked a clearance with his face, as Denmark’s renowned defence embraced the thrilling hap-hazard nature of this tournament.
It’s just unfortunate the return of order rather ruined the spectacle. Age Hareide’s side seemed to remember what they’re good at and proceeded to do it for the next 116 minutes: namely, defend stoutly, play for territory, and cause havoc with set-pieces. Croatia seemed content to let them, their own attacking threat coming to an end far too often after Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic had worked good positions and crossed to nobody in particular.
Christian Eriksen, whose hyped personal duel with Modric barely sparked into life, looked like one of the moths dazzled in the phone lights shining from the Russians in the crowd, fluttering about the pitch, bothersome but harmless.
Modric himself was cautious, strangely withdrawn and unwilling to take risks, until the glorious throughball from which Rebic won his extra-time penalty. Modric stepped up, and found Kasper Schmeichel’s midriff.
So it went to a shoot-out, the first time two World Cup games on the same day have done so since 1986. Eriksen missed, but so did Milan Badelj. Modric boldly took on responsibility and found the net this time. Lasse Schone and Josip Pivaric were less fortunate.
When Subasic stuck out a foot to deny Nicolai Jorgensen, Ivan Rakitic, probably the most relaxed-looking player all night, swept Croatia into the quarter-finals with nerveless elegance, with barely a blonde lock out of place.
On this evidence, Russia won’t be afraid of that match in Sochi. But Croatia’s so-called golden generation, when they looked ready to wilt, have come through their toughest mental test at any finals since the famous team of 1998, who finished third in France.
They might just have expunged any fears of their own in emerging from the chaos, and a fearless quarter-final is just what this World Cup deserves.