Nizhny Novgorod (Russia), July 2 (IANS) Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic says his faith in his footballers has gone up as they overcame Denmark 3-2 (1-1) via penalty shootout to enter the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals after a gap of 20 years.
After an enthralling start to the match which saw Mathias Jorgensen for Denmark and Mario Mandzukic for Croatia score within just four minutes, the teams couldn’t be separated till the end of 120 minutes of play as Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel denied a penalty from Croatia captain Luka Modric.
In the penalty shootout, Schmeichel’s counterpart, Danijel Subasic shone brighter, becoming the first goalkeeper to block three attempts during the tie-breaker in the World Cup history.
Ivan Rakitic scored Croatia’s fifth attempt to send them into the last eight stage where they will meet hosts Russia, who eliminated Spain earlier in the day in Moscow.
“I think this can only get us closer together and make us stronger. After you win such a game, you know you are worth it. And my faith in my players is also stronger,” the coach was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.
“We are happy with what we have achieved, but we know we have to do more.”
Subasic had seen the worst of starts to the game when Denmark broke the deadlock 58 seconds into the game. Jonas Knudsen hurled a long throw from the right into the box where Thomas Delaney brought it down before making a side-pass to Jorgense, whose shot bounced off a couple of defenders before scruffily going over the line.
Subasic then celebrated Croatia’s equaliser within three minutes. Denmark’s Henrik Dalsgaard failed to make a proper clearance off a cross as it kissed the face of fellow teammate Andreas Cristensen before Mandzukic swept it home for the equaliser, giving no chance to Schmeichel.
Mandzukic in the 19th minute appealed for a penalty claiming a foul by Knudsen as they tussled for a cross from Ivan Perisic but a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) waved the Croatian’s demand away.
Both teams played attacking football for the rest of the first half, producing one chance after another as Subasic stood tall to deny Martin Braithwaite, who ran in from the inside right of the box and tried to slip past the keeper after being fed by Christian Erisken in the 26th minute.
Three minutes later, Rakitic’s 25-yard shot was palmed away by Schmeichel but Rebic grabbed the rebound before he overcame Dalsgaard at the left byline and fired a six-yard curler which again failed to breach the Danish glovesman. The rebound fell into the path of Perisic, whose left-footed drive from 12 yards away sailed over.
Late in the first half, Eriksen’s chip touched the left corner of the bar, while at the other end, Rakitic drove straight at Schmeichel at the right post to close an enthralling 45 minutes of play.
The match dried up in the second half as the teams lacked the spark and the creativity to trouble each other at both ends of the pitch.
The best of the second half was seen from Denmark when Yussuf Yurrary Poulsen moved past left-back Strinic and drilled a low cross into the near post. Braithwaite picked the half-cleared cross before shedding his marker but his shot went off the target in the 55th minute.
Croatia looked up to their captain Modric, who came out with a couple of long-range drives – a 30-yard drive was smothered by Schmeichel while a 20-yard ranger could only earn a corner.
Modric did produce a moment of magic in the 115th minute as a through ball opened up the Danish defence as striker Andrej Kramaric galloped inside the box. Kramaric dodged past Schmeichel but was brought down by Jorgensen just as he was about to roll the ball in. Real Madrid star Modric stepped up to take the resulting penalty spot-kick but Leicester City keeper Schmeichel dived to his left to stop a weak effort as the match went to the penalty shootout.
During the penalty shootout, Denmark and Croatia got off to poor starts with Eriksen and Milan Badelj failing to convert their attempts.
In the next two attempts for both teams, Kramaric, Modric for Croatia and Simon Kjaer and Michael Krohn-Dehli scored for Denmark. Lasse Schone missed his spot-kick but Denmark were relieved when Croatian substitute Josip Pivaric also missed.
After Nicolai Jorgensen missed Denmark’s fifth attempt, Rakitic converted the spot-kick to give Croatia the 3-2 win in the penalty shootout.