(aet) Croatia won 3-1 on penalties
“I told you!” shouted the Croat hired by Fifa to do the pitchside shouting. “We are the masters of extra-time and penalties!”
Qatar is supposed to be no country for old men but Croatia progress to another World Cup quarter-final where they face Brazil on Friday at Education City.
The third oldest squad remaining, behind the South Americans, with the smallest population, was helped by the Blue Samurais always stumbling at this moment.
Croatia prevailed despite 37-year-old maestro Luca Modrić being spent and benched on 99 minutes, a decision that goes down as a masterstroke by manager Zlatko Dalić.
“We shall not surrender, we shall keep up our dream to win the World Cup,” said Dalić, who would have been excoriated for running Modrić into the ground, had his gutsy players stumbled under near suffocating pressure.
But it was Japan who blinked first, second and fourth as the Croats steeled themselves to repeat the feats of 2018, exposing their opponents’ established mindset and dodgy technique from the spot.
Dominik Livaković followed a tradition laid by Danijel Subašić four years ago in Russia, when they outlasted Denmark and the hosts to reach the final, by blocking three poorly struck Japan penalties and diving the wrong way for Takuma Asano’s weak effort.
“No, I don’t think they were difficult penalties to defend,” said Livaković, having brought his career record to 17 saves from 58 penalties for a respectable 29.3 per cent. “We did an analysis prior to match, they were not perfect penalties, but they were strong. It worked well for me.”
Brittle strikes by Takumi Minamino, Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma and captain Maya Yoshida were matched by Livaković's strong wrists, allowing Mario Pašalić, one of three takers sprang off the bench by Dalić, to eliminate the Japanese.
Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu concurred: “I think the Croatia goalkeeper was wonderful. I think it is luck but at the same time it is training. I think it is both.”
Let the record show that Vlašić, a solid strike to his left, Marcelo Brozović down the middle and Pašalić into the bottom left corner, covered for Marko Livaja casually hitting the post with the third Croatian penalty.
A game broke out before the dramatic conclusion, with Daizen Maeda sweeping home the opening goal four minutes before half-time, the Celtic striker scoring to save the contest from descending into stalemate, which it did anyway.
The Japan goal had been coming, even if Croatia looked comfortable in possession and Ivan Perišić missed an early chance. Having got away with a blatant push on Takehiro Tomiyasu near the end line, the Tottenham winger slashed a shot straight at Shūichi Gonda. The Japan goalkeeper did well to dive on the ball before Andrej Kramarić could arrive. Perišić's nudge on Tomiyasu brought instant joy to the Spurs half of north London as the Arsenal defender went to ground.
Japan were having a whale of time down both flanks as Croatia dared them to put balls into the box, trusting their physical superiority, and Japan accepted the challenge, eventually unpicking the lock via a pre-planned corner.
It had been coming. Yuto Nagatomo was painfully denied at the back post by Josip Juranović, the other Celtic player on the pitch. Referee Ismail Elfath, who sent off Vincent Aboubakar against Brazil, arrived on the scene, quickly demanding that everyone kiss and make up. Not literally of course, because it is not allowed in Qatar.
There were too few flashes of Luca-Magic, his trademark outside of the right dink sullied by Brozović's low-quality cross coming to nothing when Perišić headed wide.
Wasteful Croatia were punished for these sins when Japan’s speed in transition began to take its toll.
In stark contrast to how Argentina shape their attack around Lionel Messi, Modrić is part of the system, in that he has to press without the ball. One would think Dalić would mould the other nine outfield players around their greatest attacking weapon but, no, Modrić has to track back, even finishing normal time as an auxiliary right back.
Nine minutes into extra-time, the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner was drenched to the bone and replaced, along with Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić, by Lovro Majer and Vlašić. A 24- and 25-year-old entering the fray so Croatia could go toe-to-toe with the relentless Japanese.
The Blue Samurai held another weapon. An incessant drummer and singing by face-painted, pink-wigged Nipponese willing them beyond that last 16 glass ceiling. With every beating crescendo the 42,523 crowd sprang from inertia and when Hidemasa Morita’s back heel put Maeda in space, Daichi Kamada could only bend it wide.
But the goal was coming; a training ground move executed at the World Cup. Ritsu Doan’s corner went short to Kamada who rolled it for Junya Ito, who gave it right back, before a curving delivery was finished by Maeda.
VAR’s Artificial Intelligence allowed it by the hair of a Croat’s forearm.
The 2018 runners-up knew precisely where to hurt Japan. The equaliser proved as much, with former Liverpool defender Dejan Lovran finding the cultured head of Perišić, who joined Messi, Ronaldo and Xherdan Shaqiri as the only men to score at the past three World Cups.
Any hope of the football gods denying penalties came and went with Gonda’s flying save of Modrić's long-range strike as the private North London duel broke-even when Tomiyasu’s toe denied a Perišić screamer.
Extra-time was a sluggish, inevitable march to spot kicks; Japan winning the toss to shoot first into the end where their drummer had gone silent.