Croatia stars Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic come up spades against hosts Russia
Croatia were the better team in their World Cup semifinal encounter with Russia and deserved to win. But they managed to make it super hard for themselves by not playing to their strengths and learning very little from their past mistakes. In the end, despite the massive difference in quality, luck played a major role in their win. They surely won't complain about that, though, as long as they are progressing.
Psychological strength. For the second game in a row, the team made a comeback. For the second time in a row, they won a penalty shootout, and for the second time in a row, they progressed despite performing below their abilities.
Croatia again struggled with maintaining the ball flow. For much of the game, they looked slow, disconnected and pretty much like a broken team, attempting 49 long balls in the first 45 minutes alone. There was no press, either.
They failed to convert their second-half dominance, when they had Russia on ropes for a good 30 minutes, into a win in 90 minutes, and they allowed two fairly easy goals.
Manager rating out of 10
6 -- Zlatko Dalic got it all wrong from the start. You have some of the best midfielders in the world, and you refuse to control the midfield. But he admitted his mistake by introducing Marcelo Brozovic as a holding midfielder, which liberated Luka Modric's creativity and just lifted Croatia one level upward. Introducing Mateo Kovacic later on didn't do anything good for the team, though.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Danijel Subasic, 8 -- Couldn't save the goals but was again the hero with his saves in injury time, extra time and one in the shootout. Quite poor with his distribution, though, as he kept banging long balls despite very poor accuracy.
DF Sime Vrsaljko, 7 -- Dangerous coming forward to put additional pressure on the Russian defence and try his crosses, though that sometimes meant leaving the rest of his back four exposed in transition. Got injured and had to go off in extra time.
DF Dejan Lovren, 7 -- He made several vital defensive interventions but looked more nervous than usual, resulting in an unnecessary yellow card that put him under pressure. Lacked any kind of reaction just ahead of the second Russia goal, which he could have stopped.
DF Domagoj Vida, 7 -- Showed some insecurity with his passes and struggled a bit when Russia were on the counter, but ultimately he didn't make any costly mistakes and capped his performance with a headed goal.
DF Ivan Strinic, 6 -- Decent coming forward, but struggled at times in defence, especially when he had to cover large pockets of space.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 8 -- Fine all-around performance and again a cold-blooded decisive goal in the shootout. Dropped deep in first half to start plays from his own box, played a host of long passes, but was good at it. Really hard-working, too; winning some important balls in midfield.
MF Luka Modric, 9 -- Bossed the midfield as he usually does, especially after he was liberated and enabled to advance further as Brozovic came on as safety net. Very tidy passing and lots of initiative, always maintaining his defensive responsibilities. Would be an almost perfect game if it weren't for a very poorly taken penalty in the shootout that he was extremely lucky went in.
MF/FW Andrej Kramaric, 7 -- Diligent and persistent in trying to work between the lines, but his efforts weren't always supported by teammates, so it seemed at times that he was roaming in vain. Headed in his goal very well and had a good opportunity to double up on that but hesitated and complicated things for himself.
FW Ante Rebic, 6 -- The sheer amount of pure agility he brings to the mix lifts Croatia to a whole new energy level. However, this time he failed to do anything concrete with it. Toward the end of the game, it seemed as if his battery was running low, and he started committing unforced errors.
FW Mario Mandzukic, 7 -- In his full workhorse mode, tackling, clearing the ball, winning so many aerial challenges and providing a superb assist for Kramaric to score the equalizer to make it 1-1. Reacted poorly in defence when Mario Fernandes scored in extra time, though.
FW Ivan Perisic, 5 -- Either marked well or just too predictable, depending on how you want to look at it, but he did very little and was rightfully the first player subbed off. Could have been quite different if his shot that hit the bar was just an inch or two more accurate.
MF Marcelo Brozovic, 7 -- Came on for Perisic after 63 minutes and was key in changing Croatia's approach. He didn't do that much himself but watched Modric's back and enabled the captain to flourish.
DF Josip Pivaric, 5 -- Came on after 73 minutes for Strinic. Put additional attacking pressure in but struggled in defence, and his handball led to the free kick after which Russia scored the late equaliser.
MF Mateo Kovacic, 5 -- Came on for Kramaric after 87 minutes and was largely anonymous. Also missed a penalty in the shootout.
DF Vedran Corluka, N/R -- Came on after 97 minutes for the injured Vrsaljko.
Aleksandar Holiga is an independent football writer based in Zagreb, Croatia. Follow him on Twitter @AlexHoliga