Russia v Croatia – Fisht Stadium at 19:00
The Balkan nation is slated to fight the Russians in a quarter-final battle few would have seen coming. As it turns out, this World Cup edition is laden with great underdog stories probably more than any other that preceded it. Host nation Russia is the lowest-ranked team of all the participants at the start of this tournament. FIFA had them at 70th place. But last weekend, they toppled 2010 World Cup champions Spain in a suspenseful round of penalty kicks. Now, they’re off to Sochi on the Black Sea coast to secure final four berth. How’s that for a World Cup shocker?
On the flipside, Croatia left a strong impression and topped the “group of death” for the first round of playoffs. They eased past Nigeria (2-0), dismantled Argentina (3-0), and crushed Iceland to tears (2-1). They appeared to have lost the spark in the meeting with Denmark, however. They were in a deadlock. Their ticket to this last eight tie was also the result of goalkeeping valiance. They won their penalty shootout and it seems to be the trend these days (Spain v Russia) (Croatia v Denmark) (Colombia v England). With a win here, the Vatreni will move to the semi-finals for the first time in 20 years.
Who will push the other to the exit door?
Croatia looks on paper the stronger side. Bookmakers have them listed at negative Азиатский гандикап odds.
– Russia defeated powerhouse Spain after over 120 minutes of action with saves by Igor Akinfeev.
– Sergei Ignashevich became the oldest World Cup own-goal scorer at 38 years old after inadvertently diverting the ball.
– President Vladimir Putin was blamed by netizens on Twitter as controversial VAR decision robbed Spain against Russia (Ilya Kutepov was not called out despite grabbing Sergio Ramos).
– Croatia edged Denmark in knockout match with Luka Modric’s second penalty kick attempt and Ivan Rakitic’s free spot kick.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov’s side must play to their strength: defense structure. Their well-organized defense enabled them to survive two hours of dominance by La Roja in Round of 16. They need to rev up this asset with more attacking power. They’ve been noticeably goal-shy when faced with tougher opponents (Russia v Uruguay: 3-0; Russia v Spain: 1-1). To overcome Croatia, they got to have someone lead the line. Artem Dzyuba can be put in front to ignite the goals, as well as Denis Cheryshev who’ve netted three in the tournament so far. They will have a partisan crowd at Fisht and they will indubitably play above themselves on Saturday.
Croatia can go all the way. There’s no doubt about it anymore. Their team is packed to the hilt with talent (“golden generation”), and they have stellar attacking prowess. Few teams have a better midfielder than they do. They have Luka Modric’s smooth passing and clever positioning at their arsenal. Ivan Rakitic is a world-class playmaker in his prime. They have strong defenders at the support. But Zlatko Dalic is not one to let his guard down. In an interview, he insisted that there can be no arrogance moving forward and that Russia will not have progressed if they were not great opponents. The Croatians have come so far and they want more.
KEY PLAYERS: THE SHOT-STOPPERS
Igor Akinfeev has earned comparisons to highly-esteemed Russian goalkeepers Rinat Dasayev and the great Lev Yashin. Captain Akinfeev is very skilled at saving penalties, long shots, and close-range shots. He has cat-like reflexes and brilliant positional sense as seen in his recent match-winning save. Akinfeev leapt to the right and for a minute, it seemed like Spain would take the win. But then, his massive left foot came up and hooked away the decisive penalty. This complete goalie will surely endeavour to make solid contact with every ball that finds their way to the net.
Danijel Subasic has kept remarkable clean sheets for Croatia during the group matches. The AS Monaco man also delivered penalty heroics in their last 16 encounter with the Danes. He saved three penalties in the dramatic shootout, becoming only the second goalkeeper to achieve such feat alongside Portugal’s Ricardo Pereira. We’ll see more of Subasic diving to keep the goals out of his post in this quarter-final showdown.
Tweaked version of 3-5-2 allows full-backs to get into more advanced positions, all the while making it easier to forge speedy counter-attacks. Having plenty of players in midfield makes it problematic for rivals to get into final third. Defensive organization must be defectless to ensure results.
Ball possession is key to this approach. Quick exchanges can be made to and fro for increased attack. Shape must be maintained while falling back so opponents won’t get space. Synchronization is also of paramount importance.
PROBABLE STARTING XI:
Russia: Mario Fernandes, Daler Kuzyaev, Roman Zobnin, Yuri Zhirkov, Alexandr Samedov, Aleksandr Golovin, Artem Dzyuba, Fyodor Kudryashov, Denis Cheryshev, Ilya Kutepov, Igor Akinfeev
Croatia: Sime Vrsaljko, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinic, Marcelo Brozovic, Ante Rebic, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric, Danijel Subasic
Russia v Croatia: 1-2
In Dalic’s words, it’s going to be a big game. It’s a question of, “Which defense will crack first?”.
Russia might sit back and contain opponents. That tactic might pay off as it did in match against Spain. They can go for a more expansive technique. Still, it’s result over style. If Russia will really press one way or another, they will see Croatia cave in.
The Croats like to run with the ball at their feet. Russia have always struggled with this type of attacking play. They also have Luka Modric’s killer passes to worry about. Croatia can threaten down the flank, cross and cut from the inside. And they will aim to breach the hosts’ defense. Croatia’s creativity was starkly absent in match against Denmark. We will be treated to loads of it here.
Or it might be decided yet again with a pendulum-esque, heart-racing penalty shootout.
MATCH BETTING ODDS:
*Prices correct at the time of writing.
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