In the space of two days Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta have all taken their leave of the World Cup but Luka Modric is still in the tournament. It was, however, a very close-run thing.
After Modric had seen Kasper Schmeichel save his penalty four minutes from the end of extra time came a shootout every bit as dire as the game that had gone before it.
Christian Eriksen, taking the first penalty in front of the Danish banners, raised his foot and struck the post. Two more Danes and two more Croats missed and then it came down to Ivan Ratikic against Schmeichel. The man from Barcelona took his time and put Croatia into the quarter-finals to face Russia.
Four minutes from the penalty shootout came the night’s moment of truth. A gorgeous pass from Modric saw Ante Rebic clear on goal. He took the ball past Kasper Schmeichel and was just about to settle the match when Mathias Jorgensen brought him down. Schmeichel appealed frantically that the Huddersfield defender had in fact made a perfect tackle, although the fact he was genuinely trying to play the ball saved him from dismissal.
Modric stepped up to take a penalty that was as dreadful as much of the rest of the match. Schmeichel saved easily, the cameras panned to his father punching the warm night air. Very soon, there would be more penalties to save.
Having begun with two goals in the opening four minutes, the levels of excitement drained away until extra time and then penalties were accepted with a shrug of the shoulders.
You could hardly blame Denmark. They really only had Christian Eriksen and their chief weapon was the long throw which suggests Tony Pulis might have a cult following in Copenhagen.
They played the only game they could; to wear down and frustrate the dark horses of this tournament. If anything summed up the night, it was the sight of Modric on the byline. He skipped left, he skipped right, like Sugar Ray Leonard on the canvas at Madison Square Gardens. Martin Braithwaite simply stood in front of him. Modric got nowhere. The referee blew to end the first period of extra time.
With Spain gone, the road to the final in Moscow was open for the brilliant thirty-somethings of Croatia, who knew this was their last World Cup. By the hour mark they found themselves not on a dual-carriageway but a dirt-track. After two hours they were lost completely.
It had begun so promisingly. Within two minutes, before the sun had properly set into the Volga, Denmark were ahead. It was a scruffy goal but it scarcely mattered. Croatia were fielding footballers from Monaco, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus. Denmark had players from Ipswich and Brentford and they went ahead through Huddersfield’s centre-half, Mathias Jorgensen.
Croatia made a hash of dealing with a long throw from Simon Kjaer, allowing Jorgensen to shoot. In a crowded area Danijel Subasic in Croatia’s goal saw it late. The ball struck the inside of his glove and rolled over the line via the inside of the post.
Before they flew to Nizhny Novgorod from their training base on Russia’s Black Sea coast, the Danish striker, Martin Braithwaite, wondered what might happen if Croatia conceded first. Everything in this World Cup had gone for them, they had never been behind but, “if they conceded first, even they don’t know how they will react”.
Croatia reacted by equalising within two minutes. It was almost as untidy as Denmark’s goal. It began conventionally enough with Ante Rebic and Sime Vrsaljko combining down the Croatian right. This time Brentford’s Henrik Dalsgaard made a hash of a clearance which managed to strike Andreas Christiansen square in the face and ricocheted to the prowling boots of Mario Mandzukic. Two goals scored, four minutes gone. For a game in a World Cup, this was apparently a record.
There were to be no more, although Dejan Lovren surely should have converted a free header. Modric was playing deeper than you might expect, looking for the killer pass, the perfect cross and when they didn’t come off, he would thrust his hand through his long, blond hair.
As the only man in the Denmark squad, with the possible exception of Schmeichel, who would command a place in Croatia’s team, much, perhaps too much, rested on Eriksen. If the pressure was acute, there were moments when he shone.
There was a lovely ball to Braithwaite but his shooting had seen him lose his place at Middlesbrough and the shot was scuffed. Then came another lovely moment from Eriksen, a chip on to the top of the post. It was a reminder, just as the fate of Germany, Spain and Argentina had been a reminder, that nothing in this World Cup is going to form or plan.
Croatia: (4-2-3-1) Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic, (Pivaric 81); Rakitic, Brozovic (Kovacic 72); Rebic, Modric, Perisic (Kramaric 97); Mandzukic (Badelj 108).
Denmark: (4-3-3) Schmeichel; Knudsen, Kjaer, M.Jorgensen, Dalsgaard; Christiansen (Schone ht), Delaney (Krohn-Deli 99), Eriksen; Poulsen, Cornelius (N.Jorgensen 67), Braithwaite (Sisto 105).
Referee: Nestor Pitana (Argentina)
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