Croatia and Denmark had a tough act to follow at the FIFA World Cup today as Russia shocked Spain in the opening match of the day, 4-3 on penalties after playing to a 1-1 draw after extra time. The shock result sent the hosts through to the Quarter-finals as they bunkered down, survived, and ultimately tried their luck at a penalty shootout. It just so has it that fate was on their side, and the Russians moved on to the Quarter-finals for the first time since 1970 when they were the Soviet Union. After the drama and excitement of that match, many wondered what would be in-store when another terrific matchup on paper was slated to kick-off in the day's second match between Croatia and Denmark.
Croatia had rested several players in their final group stage match against Iceland, already knowing they were through. They still got the result in a 2-1 victory, even while resting many of their regular starters and came into the knockout round as one of only two teams to win all 3 of their group stage matches, with the other being Belgium. While Croatia had looked strong and very capable when it came to creating goal-scoring opportunities behind their talented midfield and attackers up front, Denmark had been a bit more defensive in their approach during the group stage.
They managed a scoreless draw with France in their final group stage game, knowing that was all they needed to secure their place in the final 16. While Denmark did push forward, and weren't afraid to get out and run behind their top goal-generating threat in Christian Eriksen, they played sound defense and were tactically sound during their World Cup build-up and the group stage matches. They allowed only 1 goal in the group stage, coming in a 1-1 draw with Australia. While Croatia were considered the favorites heading into the match, there wasn't a whole lot separating these two in most pundits' minds, and the excitement was there in this one right from the opening whistle.
Denmark got off to a dream start right away in the 1' of the match when they forced a deep throw-in from the right side. The Danes do an excellent job of utilizing throw-ins as part of their repertoire, and they got an early opportunity from the set piece. Knudsen is Denmark's long-throw specialist and he stepped up and delivered an excellent throw from long-range and Croatia failed to deal with it. There was chaos in the box as it fell to Thomas Delaney who scuffed it to the left right to Mathias Jorgensen, who got a touch on it and just sent it straight ahead and in underneath Subasic to the near post. It wasn't the prettiest of goals, but it none-the-less gave Denmark the best of starts and had them up 1-0 before the clock even read 1 full minute. It was disaster for Croatia and jubilation for the Danes.
Denmark's bench had barely settled back in after celebrating the early goal to give them the lead when Croatia struck back with a quick answer. The Croats came right down the pitch themselves with determined possession and when Denmark failed to clear in the box, instead sending the ball directly off Christensen's head, it fell right to Mario Mandzukic, who wasn't going to miss from that close range as he put it in the back corner of the net to level the score up at 1-1 in just the 4' of action. It was a great finish from Mandzukic as he found it after the ricochet, leaving Schmeichal no chance from that close of range to be able to react to it. Two goals in the first 5' of the match, and this Round of 16 showdown was on.
Denmark then committed what could have been a very costly foul right at the edge of the box in the 12'. The subsequent Croatian free-kick was driven right into the wall and deflected away however, as it appeared the goal-keeper was ready to take a dive to the near post to keep it out had it made its way through the wall.
It was only a matter of time before Luka Modric would put his impact on the match and in the 29' the talented Croatian midfielder lead a couple of great opportunities as he fired from inside the box on the left and Schmeichal couldn't handle it, giving Perisic a chance as he gathered it in the box and miss-hit it the first time, barely catching the ball, before regrouping and firing over the goal as Schmeichal came diving at him. It was the first, but certainly not the last time we would hear from Modric as he was just getting started in this one.
Modric once again got an opportunity from a free kick this time in the 39' and his subsequent cross came in right at the top center of the 6 yard box, but it skimmed away out wide and out of harms way as Denmark was able to exhale. They exhaled, but held their breath one last time before the intermission when Rakitic got a great chance on goal in the 45' and struck it solid, but right at Schmeichal as the strike failed to trouble him and he gathered it in easily.
The first half produced some very early thrills, and near-chances as the half closed out, but ultimately both sides had to be happy to get into the locker room with the score knotted at 1-1. There were quality opportunities for both sides after the initial 5 minutes, but neither side was able to get one in and break the deadlock. Exceptional goalkeeping from Schmeichal and Subasic were to thank for the preserved 1-1 scoreline.
The second half of the match featured solid build up and possession by both sides, but didn't lead to really any exciting chances until the 78' when Rakitic once again got a look for Croatia from beyond the box but it never troubled the keeper as Schmeichal was able to easily cover another one.
The action continued as both sides began to tire as the 90' approached, and Denmark found themselves with one last great opportunity to get the winner before for extra time. Knudsen once again took the ball for a long-throw in from the left side and delivered into the box, where Croatia got a slight touch and it skimmed across the pitch and went out on the other side for another throw in. Knudsen once again wound up and delivered, this one even better - right into the middle of the box, but it was dealt with by Croatia and cleared away.
The clearance afforded Croatia more possession, which culminated with a strike from 25 yards out by Rakitic, but it was a tad off-target and went just wide of the far post. The last danger before extra time appeared to be out of the way for Denmark as Rakitic's shot went wide in the 92'. Denmark came back down the pitch with one last-gasp effort themselves, and won a corner kick in the 93'. The set piece would be the final kick before time was called and after Subasic was able to punch the free kick away, it went right to a Denmark player who took the shot on the volley but it went wide and the two sides were on to extra time.
It was clear by the end of the 90' of action that Croatia were starting to tire as they created fewer and fewer chances in their attacking third. While Denmark was able to turn away possession after possession, and generate a few opportunities themselves, it caused Croatia to be a tad more cautious, and it was anybody's match heading into extra time.
After an evenly-fought first 90 minutes, for the second time on Sunday, we were headed for extra time in the Round of 16. Most of the extra time was fairly even as well, with Croatia holding more possession, but unable to create many opportunities. After the first half of extra time, it appeared that the Croatians were losing a bit of momentum as the frustration of being turned away offensively time and time again began to settle in. Then, just when it seemed that Croatia were losing their luster, they got the moment of separation they were looking for offensively.
After Modric gathered the ball at midfield he looked up to find a streaking player breaking through the front line of Denmark, and delivered a perfect through pass off the quick break. The attacker was onsides and all Schmeichal could do was attempt to take it away from the Croatian player as he was out of goal. After faking out the goalkeeper and easily maneuvering around him, all that was left was the open goal for Croatia and Jorgensen came sliding in with a textbook definition of a professional foul, taking him down from behind for an easy penalty call by the referee. Jorgensen was brandished a yellow card, but it could have easily been a red for taking down the last man on an open goal-scoring opportunity. None-the-less the damage was done and Modric stepped up to the spot for Croatia with time dwindling away in the extra period.
Modric fired his strike from the spot in the 116' and Schmeichal made an incredible save with the match on the line for Denmark. He went a tad early and guessed right, diving to his left to come up with an unbelievable save as he gathered it in and preserved the deadlock denying Modric of what could have easily been the match winner. It was a good effort by Modric, not a bad penalty by any means, it was just a high-class save by the goalkeeper in the biggest of moments.
With the momentum now building for Denmark after the remarkable save, they were able to run out the clock with no damage done and force the second penalty shootout of the day. It marked just the second time in World Cup history, with 1986 being the other, where two matches on the same day both ended in a penalty shootout.
Denmark was pegged to go first in the shootout, and they immediately sent-out their "big gun" in Christian Eriksen. Eriksen's shot was struck well but Subasic was very patient and waited to dive at the last moment to make an incredible save to kick off the penalty shootout.
Then it was Schmeichal's turn once again as he dove to his right and caught the ball with his legs, turning in another great save and put the shootout at 0-0. Milan Badelj was unable to send his effort through as Schmeichal appeared to be a brick wall in front of goal.
Kjaer then stepped up for Denmark and this time his strike was pure, leaving no chance for Subasic as he drilled it into the upper right corner of the net for a clinical penalty. Croatia weren't to be outdone this time as Andre Kramaric stepped up and delivered his strike after a stutter and hesitation got Schmeichal to move early. It was a nice effort by Kramaric to level the shootout at 1-1.
After Krohn-Dehli converted his kick for Denmark, slotting it in to the right after the goalkeeper went early and dove left, it was once-again Modric's turn from the spot. This time Modric stepped up and delivered, firing it straight ahead as Schmeichal started to his left. It was a superb effort this time for the Croatian leader, and he delivered, once again bringing the shootout even, now at 2-2.
Then it was Subasic's turn once again for Croatia. He batted away Lasse Schone's effort with a terrific diving save to his right, and Croatia once again had the chance to seize the momentum and take control of the shootout. But Schmeichal proved up to the task yet again for Denmark as he was able to come up with another incredible save to his right. Josip Pivaric who had come on as a substitute, and he looked to just smash it past, and he did smash it, but it was a sublime save once again from the Denmark Goalkeeper.
The incredible goalkeeping display continued as Nicolai Jorgensen stepped up to the spot for Denmark, and after a stutter-step, had his strike saved by Subasic yet again as the Croatian keeper dove left and still caught it with his legs for another beautiful stop, and put them in position to advance to the Quarter-finals for the first time since 1998.
Rakitic stepped in and delivered a professional strike as he cooly and calmly slotted the shot in to his left into the back corner as Schmeichal went the other way and Croatia survived the war attrition and outlasted a very strong Danish side 3-2 on penalties to advance to the Quarter-finals for only the second time. It was an incredible effort by both goalkeepers as they provided numerous high-class saves throughout the 90' and extra time and then provided some absolutely incredible moments during the penalty shootout. For Denmark, it was oh so close to moving on to the Quarter-finals, but in the end, they turned in a very nice tournament and a very good showing of themselves. Croatia now move-on where they will face Russia in the Quarter-finals, and have to be licking their chops as their side of the bracket appears to be wide-open. England is the only team left on their side who have ever hoisted the World Cup Trophy, and that was over 50 years ago. What a thrilling match to conclude day 2 of the knockout stage.
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