Croatia broke Russian hearts by dumping the host out of the World Cup, winning a tense quarterfinal on penalties.
It looked as though another upset could be on the cards when Denis Cheryshev’s stunning strike gave Russia a first-half lead.
Croatia hit back just eight minutes later through Andrej Kramaric, before Domagoj Vida’s scrappy header 10 minutes into extra time looked to have won the tie.
But Brazilian-born right-back Mario Fernandes – only able to play for Russia thanks to a presidential decree from Russian president Valdimir Putin – popped up with a header to turn himself into an unlikely hero and take the tie to penalties.
His hero status, however, lasted all of 20 minutes as he missed a decisive penalty in the shootout, allowing Ivan Rakitic to step up and slot home the winner.
Croatia will now face England in the last four for a place in the final against either Belgium or France.
Domagoj Vida is mobbed by his teammates after scoring the winner.
Russia bows out with pride
“Doomed to fail” read the front page of a Russian national newspaper three weeks ago, just days before the start of the World Cup.
This Russia team – the lowest-ranked side in the tournament at 70 in the world rankings – wasn’t supposed to be in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, competing in a quarterfinal against Croatia. It wasn’t supposed to have made it out of the group, let alone knock out 2010 champions Spain in the last 16.
Such was the pessimism surrounding the national team coming into this World Cup, most thought it would be a humiliation. But this side has captured the imagination.
Yet, in Croatia, the host was facing a team which had created its own history in Russia, going unbeaten in its first four games, eclipsing the country’s previous World Cup record of two matches undefeated.
Coming into this quarterfinal, Croatia had scored in its previous eight World Cup matches — a new record for the national team – and had never lost against Saturday’s opponents, drawing twice and winning once in their three previous encounters.
But the omens were good for Russia, too. Six times a host nation had reached the last eight, with Mexico the only side to lose, going out on penalties to West Germany.
Domagoj Vida celebrates his goal in extra time.
Another Russia shock?
With Russia’s coach Stanislav Cherchesov acting as a conductor for the crowd, his side started the better of the two, brilliantly stifling Croatia’s talented midfield duo of Luka Modric and Rakitic.
The match looked set to follow much the same pattern as Russia’s backs-to-the-wall performance against Spain, before a moment of stunning individual brilliance gave the host a shock lead.
Striker Artem Dzyuba was diligent in his role as lone striker and brilliant hold-up play saw him lay the ball into Cheryshev’s path.
He took one exquisite touch to get the ball out of his feet and evaded two challenges before unleashing an unstoppable, curling strike into the top corner.
For all of Russia’s hard running, it was unable to prevent the equalizer just eight minutes later.
Mario Mandzukic’s powerful run down the left was followed by a deft chip into the box, which the onrushing Kramaric diverted past Igor Akinfeev.
After the break Russia was content to play on the counter while Croatia attacked but, for the second consecutive round, both teams would have to play extra time. Good news for England, if nobody else.
Mario Fernandes celebrates his extra time equalizer.
Extra time again
Ten minutes into extra time, Vida put Croatia ahead and seemingly on course for victory but, with Russia looking dead and buried, Fernandes appeared from nowhere to haul the host level in the dying minutes of extra time.
Fernandes’ joy was short lived, however, as his missed penalty, along with Fyodor Smolov’s saved effort, proved costly in the shootout.
As he did in the last 16 against Denmark, Rakitic stepped up and slotted the final penalty home, sparking jubilant celebrations among Croatia’s players and staff.
An exhausted Russian team had given its all. It wasn’t enough, but they bow out with pride restored and not as the failures many had predicted they would be.