Croatia end Russia's run, advance to World Cup semifinals
Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic celebrates.
Croatia reached the World Cup semi-finals for the second time in their history with Ivan Rakitic again the hero in a 4-3 penalty shoot-out victory over hosts Russia on Saturday.
Rakitic slotted home the winning kick against Denmark in the last 16 and once again held his nerve to convert from the spot, with Mario Fernandes going from hero to villain by missing from 12 yards after his 115th-minute header had made it 2-2 deep into extra time.
After ending the home side's incredible run, Zlatko Dalic's side will aim to at least go one better than the famous 1998 vintage that finished third in France when they meet England at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday.
Denis Cheryshev got Russia off to a brilliant start by marking his return to the starting line-up with yet another contender for goal of the tournament after his stunning efforts against Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the group stage, but Andrej Kramaric equalised just eight minutes later.
Domagoj Vida headed Luka Modric's corner home 10 minutes into the first extra period, only for Fernandes, the Brazil-born defender who was only granted Russia citizenship by president Vladimir Putin two years ago, to keep Russia’s hopes alive in a dramatic finish.
However, it was not to be for the resilient hosts, with goalkeeper Danijel Subasic saving Fedor Smolov's penalty and Fernandes firing wide before Rakitic kept his composure to put Croatia one match away from the final.
Croatia stymied Russia's positive start as Russia focused on counter-attacking but Ivan Perisic glanced a header wide as Dalic's men struggled to turn possession into clear-cut chances.
Russia punished them when Cheryshev came in from the left and, after a one-two with Artem Dzyuba, skipped away from Modric and curled an exquisite 31st-minute effort beyond Subasic, who remained rooted to the spot as the ball sailed into his net.
Cherchesov's men were unable to hold on until half-time, though, as Mario Mandzukic advanced down the left to set up the chance for an unmarked Kramaric to silence Sochi.
Croatia went agonisingly close to taking the lead for the first time on the hour, but Perisic was denied by the upright after Igor Akinfeev flapped at a lofted ball from Kramaric.
Subasic appeared to sustain a hamstring injury when stopping a deflected Aleksandr Erokhin cross go out for a corner, though he recovered to bat away Smolov's drive from an acute angle in stoppage time.
An injury to Sime Vrsaljko forced Dalic to send on Vedran Corluka as his fourth substitution, though Croatia were celebrating when Vida nodded past Akinfeev.
The ailing Subasic managed to keep out Daler Kuzyaev but could do nothing as Fernandes headed home the equaliser in the 115th minute, converting Alan Dzagoev's free-kick after the CSKA Moscow midfielder was sent on for his first appearance since sustaining a hamstring injury in the tournament opener against Saudi Arabia.
Penalties were required and after Smolov's feeble Panenka attempt with the first effort was foiled by Subasic, parity was restored when Akinfeev got down to his left to keep out Mateo Kovacic’s second attempt for Croatia.
After Fernandes' failure, Modric got lucky when his strike found the opposite side of the net to that following touches off Akinfeev's glove and the post.
The decisive penalty once again fell to Rakitic, though, and he confidently rolled the ball into the bottom-left corner to keep Croatia's dreams of a first World Cup final within reach.