Croatia returned from the brink to reach the nation’s third World Cup semi-final and ensure Brazil’s wait for a fifth triumph will extend to 24 years, at least.
Neymar scored a brilliant solo goal at the end of the first-half of extra-time to seemingly book a semi-final encounter with the Netherlands or Argentina. But it is Croatia waiting to discover the winners of Friday’s other quarter-final tie.
Bruno Petkovic equalised, conjuring a rabbit from the hat to net with Croatia’s first shot on target after 117 minutes. Brazil were behind the eight ball from the start of the penalty shootout when the outstanding Dominic Livakovic saved from Rodrygo, Nikola Vlasic, Lovro Majer, Luka Modric and Mislav Orsic were all successful for Croatia.
Which meant that when Marquinhos struck the base of the post – after Casemiro and Pedro both scored – it was time for penalty kings Croatia to celebrate.
It was 10-0 with three minutes remaining. In terms of attempts on target, that is. Brazil had reached double figures for efforts troubling the exceptional Livakovic – but, crucially, only defeated the goalkeeper once.
Still, it appeared that Neymar’s wonderful goal to equal Pele’s national team scoring record, would send Brazil into the semi-finals. Neymar had grown frustrated of waiting for something to happen, so deep into the first period of extra time retreated to the halfway line to collect possession.
He advanced menacingly via an exchange of passes with Rodrygo, picking up the pace to stride on to a second return ball, supplied by Lucas Paqueta. Suddenly, Neymar was in familiar territory, starting into the whites of Livakovic’s eyes. Only this time Livakovic, fearful of fouling his opponent, resisted committing to a challenge. Neymar retained his poise to take the ball past Livakovic and slam it high into the net. Cue beldam in Education City Stadium.
The celebrations had a feel of job done and that was understandable. Croatia hadn’t once disturbed Alisson in Brazil’s goal. But after 117 minutes – three minutes after he replaced Marcelo Brozovic – Morsic dashed down the left to draw a ball back for Petkovic on the 18-yard line. Petkovic, whose last international goal was scored in September 2020, took aim, the ball nicking off Marquinhos to carry it out of reach of Alisson and inside the keeper’s right post.
Croatia, for the second match in a row, and fourth in six World Cup knockout matches, were destined for penalties – even if it required Livakovic to repel Marquinhos with pretty much the last kick of the game to keep the scores level.
The Europeans, regardless of their paucity of goal attempts, showed up first as an attacking force. Mario Pasalic was the instigator, skating down the right to deliver and aghast to see what became of an inviting cross. Josip Juranovic tried but failed to apply a touch, then Ivan Perisic missed his kick altogether.
Livakovic’s first stop was relatively straight forward, gathering an effort from Neymar, who couldn’t generate the direction he wanted from a promising position. Moments earlier, the consistently excellent Josko Gvardiol blocked a low effort from Vinicius Junior after the forward skipped onto a bright return pass from Richarlison.
Livakovic remained watchful when Neymar’s free-kick three minutes before half-time deviated off the wall and threatened to wrong-foot the keeper. Neymar didn’t make anything like the contact we was after with a shot on the turn that hit the ubiquitous Gvardiol shortly after the restart.
Then it was time for Livakovic to really begin earning his corn. A weak clearance fell for Vini Jr in front of goal but the 27-year-old made the save. Livakovic held his nerve when confronted with Neymar running though after 55 minutes, standing tall to deny the forward.
A ball ran favourably for Paqueta in the box nine minutes later – but that was where the midfielder’s luck started and finished, Livakovic again thwarting a Brazil player clean through on goal. Livakovic narrowed the angle to frustrate Neymar after quick, forward passes from substitute Rodrygo and Richarlison, in turn, freed their fellow attacker in the penalty area.
Rodrygo cut a ball back for Paqueta to force Livakovic into a save at his feet with 10 minutes remaining and in the final minute of normal time Antony, on for Raphinha since minute 56, tested Livakovic’s nerve with a bouncing long ranger. Livakovic’s handling was immaculate, clutching the ball to his chest.
Between times, Eder Militao swung at a ball in the box but saw the attempt from 12 yards deflect wide. The direction of traffic was unaltered in extra-time – until we entered the 13th minute. Petkovic’s footwork high on the left was too smart for a pair of befuddled defensive bodies, enabling the burly striker to slip a pass for Brozovic. The midfielder, otherwise excellent, wasn’t so assured, shooting over the top.
Brazil midfielder Casemiro: “All defeats are painful, especially when you have a goal, a dream, you have a four-year job for that moment. It’s hard to find words in these moments.
“It’s about lifting your head, life goes on. We are sad, everyone in the group did their best. We get upset, mainly because of the way it was. It was in our hands, it escaped there. It’s a hard moment. Now it’s about having peace of mind, life has to go on.”
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