Croatia's resilience propels them past Russia and on to the semifinals
SOCHI, Russia -- It's not about getting knocked down. It's about getting back up and treating triumph and disaster, both impostors, just the same. If both Little League coaches and Rudyard Kipling agree, then you can be pretty sure there's more than a grain of truth in it.
For all its talent and experience, this Croatia team has had its nose busted open plenty of times. Right back down to the last game, against Denmark, when Luka Modric's late penalty miss shifted the momentum Dane-ward, and for a minute, we believed Kasper was going to follow in Big Papa Schmeichel's footsteps.
On Saturday, on the banks of the Black Sea, Croatia had plenty more knockdowns. First, coach Zlatko Dalic's uber-offensive set-up -- two center-forwards, two wingers, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric on their own in the middle of the park -- blew up in his face.
"My idea was to go at them with four attackers, thinking they would sit back and we could play between the lines," Dalic said. "But instead, they surprised us by pressing high and being aggressive. And we were undermanned in midfield. [Goalkeeper Danijel] Subasic basically ended up as our playmaker, and we were left to only hit long balls. That's not how Croatia play. That's not our style."
Dalic will engage in tactical ju-jitsu from time to time (Gareth Southgate, take note), but on this occasion, he was outwitted and eventually had to bring on another midfielder, Marcelo Brozovic, to halt the slide. Before that, though, another hammer-blow.
Right off one of those high-intensity pressing actions that Russia didn't resort to against Spain, Denis Cheryshev received the ball from Artem Dzyuba, power-upped into space and uncorked a 35-yard missile that beat Subasic. The crowd roared as Dalic ran his fingers through his hair, and a dejected Subasic, who should have done better, stared into the heavens.
Was this going to be one of those nights?
Sometimes you pick yourself up off the floor of your own volition, and sometimes your opponent stumbles to your level. That's what happened when a botched defensive movement left a highway down the left flank for Mario Mandzukic to rumble. His cross was met by Andrej Kramaric, and the ball squeezed past Akinfeev. Game on.
Now it was going his way. Now Dalic could smile. The high press had taken its toll on Russia. They were the ones who were beginning to flag. Croatia was going to take this home.
"With the extra midfielders, Brozovic and then [Mateo] Kovacic, we were dominating and in control, we felt good," Dalic said.
Then Subasic went down clutching his hamstring as the game approached extra time. He insisted that he could play on, though ominously, he was unable to take goal kicks. Dalic let him continue but quietly warmed up his reserve goalkeeper. Thankfully, at this World Cup, you get an extra substitute in extra time, but minutes later, he had to burn that fourth sub on Sime Vrsaljko, who was forced off with a muscle strain. Things looked bleak again; the Russian crowd smelled weakness. It was left to the man-bunned Domagoj Vida to score what many thought was the winner.
Dalic could relax. These were his warriors. They'd been up, and they'd been down, but now it was just about shepherding the game through its final minutes by any means necessary.
But then Josip Pivaric intercepted a pass with his hand: the classic "take-one-for-the-team" booking. It was going to be an innocuous free-kick from the right ... except it was anything but. Substitute Alan Dzagoev, still nursing his injury from the tournament opener vs. Saudi Arabia, floated the perfect cross, and Mario Fernandes smacked his header home. Two-two. It was slipping away again.
How many more chances were Croatia going to get?
They got one more, right at the death, as Kovacic trundled like a Lego figurine come to life through the Russian defense and conjured up a through ball for Rakitic, who failed to connect. Mandzukic, who had busted a gut running the length of the pitch in support, fell to the ground, jelly-legged. It was not meant to be.
The Fisht stadium fans, heavily tilted toward the World Cup hosts, grew in confidence. It was going to penalties, but the momentum and the tide of history were with the home side. Miss a chance, get punished. Fail to kill a game, and the game kills you. Unless you're Croatia. This Croatia, this team is forever coming back.
The spot-kicks provided plenty of drama, from Dzagoev putting Subasic on his back side and then frantically waving his arms to get the crowd involved to Vida converting his penalty and enveloping Subasic in a bear hug to Modric smacking his penalty off of Igor Akinfeev, the post and the cross bar before, somehow, willing the ball into the back of the net. But the relief came with Ivan Rakitic's winner.
Dalic could do no more than burst into tears.
"During the match, I bottled up my emotions. I was focused," he said. "But when Rakitic scored, everything came bursting out of me in waves. It was more than relief.
"I don't cry often, I really don't, but this time, I couldn't help it. We had been through so much. It was a battle, a fight, one we thought we had lost. And I am so proud that each time we came back."
(You'll forgive Dalic for the military lingo. Russia coach Stanislav Chercheshov likes to use similar terms to explain what he does. Even on Saturday, he spoke of his players as "conscripts" who, now that the World Cup is over, were about to "demobilize" and return from the front lines back to their besotted beloved. That beloved, of course, is Russia. "The entire country is in love with us," he said. "We made them fall in love with us. They had no choice.")
Make no mistake about it, though: Croatia is in love too. How can you not be with this team of artists and artisans, genius both flawed and (quasi-) flawless, hulks (Mandzukic) and pixies (Modric)? Most of all, they are a group of men who leave the pitch dragging their spent shells of bodies to the sidelines after experiencing more highs and lows than anyone ought to have on a green pitch.
On Sunday, they'll begin to look ahead to England. As always, their first concerns are injury and fatigue.
"There were times when we lacked energy: 240 minutes of football in six days takes its toll on you," said Modric, who then, in typical Modric fashion, turned all business. "We expect England to be demanding, but most of all, we need to work on our set-piece defending. We saw how good they are on dead-ball situations, and we are all aware that we conceded a set-piece goal tonight."
His coach, Dalic, was still riding the emotion.
"We ran out of gas at times, and then we found the energy again," he said. "Man, I don't even know how many of our guys are injured or tired ... we've been to war. We have to recover now. But what I can assure you is that yes, we have some energy left to deal with England. We got this far. We're not going to stop."
Or, more accurately, they feel like if they do stop, they'll simply start up again. Because when you get your nose broken enough times, after a while, it stops hurting. And you just keep going. Like these Croats.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.