Nobody had this match on their prediction chart, and yet here we are. What good teams Japan and Croatia had turned out to be – and how sad is it to see Japan go after producing so many upsets?
Japan has been an absolute rush and one of the most affirming joys of this competition. Beating Germany and Spain is one thing – well, two things – but beating Germany and Spain from behind is one of the – well, two of the – most ridiculous feats in recent times.
And that’s only part of it. What’s been just as wondrous is the inspirational invention and screeching intensity of their play; if they could have found that here it would have been different.
However, if anyone had the antidote for that, it was 2018 runners-up Croatia. In particular, it was Luka Modric. He may be 37 years 0ld, but his ageless genius allows the last of the great schemers to somehow orchestrate proceedings involving 21 other, younger players. But he is also abetted by the all-round efficiency of Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, a midfield trio accomplished enough to decide which of these teams progresses.
Croatia keep cool
Croatia are like a boa constrictor, gradually strangling opponents until they can’t breathe. They weren’t fazed by the attacking play that Japan showed early on. Six of their last seven tournament knockout games have gone to extra time.
But against the run of play and in quite clinical fashion, it would be the Japanese who would score the first goal from a corner. It’s not often we’ve see teams that are any good from corners – but what happens here is it goes to Doan, he goes one more to Morita, and when the ball comes back, he curled in a delectable cross to the far post, where Yoshida’s challenge squirted it square and Maeda forced home from close range.
However, right after half time Croatia would equalise. Croatia knocked it about aimlessly, then Lovren stuck a tremendous ball into the box and Perisic did superbly not only to get in front of his man and apply the cut, but to cut across it and send it across Gonda, curling into the far corner, from a fair old way out.
Japan looked like the better side for the rest of the half, but the match ended in a draw which meant that there would be extra time.
Both sides were trying to press in extra time, but neither had much left nor anyone they could rely on to score. But the nerves were getting right on top, and when that happens, things start to calm off.
The second half of extra time was calmer, with both sides content on facing each other on penalties.
Croatia had the experience in penalties, and that really showed with the 3-1 scoreline.
First it was Japan with a miserable effort from Minamino. Livakovic saved low to his left without having to go very far.
Then it was Croatia, where Vlasic swept home.
Then it was Japan, and Livakovic saved again. Mitoma goes low but not in the corner, and the keeper saves to his right this time.
Then it was Croatia, where Gonda goes to his right and Brozovic clipped down the middle.
Then it was Japan, where Asano scored easily; Livakovic going left as he went right.
And to win the game it was Croatia but Livaja stumbled up, paused, looked up again, and tapped against the post where Gonda had gone the wrong way.
And Japan could salvage the difference but Yoshida goes left… and Livakovic read it, saving easily again.
With the final shot, Pasalic kept calm and found the bottom left, putting Croatia into the last eight.
They will face the winners of Brazil v South Korea.