Croatia finally ended Russia’s unlikely World Cup dream when they won 4-3 on penalties to eliminate the gallant hosts in a dramatic quarter-final which ended 2-2 after extra time on Saturday.
Ivan Rakitic stroked home the winning penalty to send Croatia into a semi-final against England after Mario Fernandes dramatically equalised for Russia with five minutes of extra time remaining, only to miss a crucial kick in the shootout.
Both teams had also won on penalties in their second round matches, with Russia beating Spain, but the hosts’ marksmanship let them down this time.
Fyodor Smolov saw Russia’s first penalty saved by Danijel Subasic and, although Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev saved a Mateo Kovacic kick, the hosts’ fate was sealed when Fernandes, turning from hero to villain, fired completely wide from their third attempt.
In the previous 120 minutes, Denis Cheryshev rifled Russia in front with a long-range thunderbolt, his fourth goal of the tournament, in the 31st minute before Andrej Kramaric headed Croatia level six minutes before halftime.
Croatia then went ahead with a soft Domagoj Vida header in the eleventh minute of extra time but Russia still managed to bounce back through Fernandes.
Russia, who many feared could go out at the group stage after a dismal run over the previous two years, had already surpassed expectations by reaching the last eight, ousting Spain on the way.
“I’m very pleased at how the team played the whole World Cup, how it showed it character and worked to the maximum,” said Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov.
After a lively opening, the game dropped off, with sessions of head tennis in midfield, but it was Russia’s more rustic approach which paid off first as they went ahead out of the blue.
Cheryshev collected the ball near the halfway line, exchanged passes with Artem Dzyuba and curled a 25-metre shot past 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 and Ivan Perisic’s shot hit the inside of the post but rebounded harmlessly across the face of the goal.
Croatia, a shadow of the team which cruised through their group with maximum points, went ahead when Vida met a corner with a weak downward header which found its way through two sets of legs and rolled into the net.
To their eternal credit, Russia hit back again when Alan Dzagoev floated a free kick into the area and Fernandes powered home a header.
“I don’t have any emotions left at all,” said Russia midfielder Roman Zobnin. “We left everything on the field. But unfortunately it didn’t happen for us today.”