Croatia upset Denmark in shoot-out thriller
CROATIA rebounded from a heartbreaking setback late in extra time to win through to the World Cup quarter-finals after a thrilling penalty shootout against Denmark.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic - who had looked shaky at times during the 120 minutes of open play - stepped up to the plate to become just the second ever shot-stopper in World Cup history to save three penalties in a shootout.
Subasic tipped Christian Eriksen's opening penalty onto the post then got in the way of Lasse Schone's effort before his final save denied Nicolai Jorgensen. His team booked a quarter-final berth against Russia when Ivan Rakitic slotted his penalty home, sparking wild scenes of celebration.
Subasic's opposite number Kasper Schmeichel was also immense for the Danes, firstly using his legs to block Milan Badelj's opening penalty then going low to his right to keep Josip Pivaric out. But his heroics weren't enough.
Schmeichel was the reason the match went to a shootout in the first place, pulling off a brilliant play to save a Luka Modric penalty in the dying stages of extra time.
An inch-perfect through ball from Modric put Ante Rebic in behind the defence with only the keeper to beat. Schmeichel came out to the edge of his area and Rebic skipped past him with an open goal ahead.
But as he tried to shoot he was brought down by a crude challenge from behind and the referee had no option but to award a penalty. The man responsible for the tackle, Mathias Jorgensen, was only shown a yellow card instead of a straight red.
Modric stepped up to the spot but Schmeichel outsmarted him, going low to his left to make a fine save and keep Denmark in the game.
"Quite extraordinary," SBS football reporter Sebastian Hassett said. "Especially a player like Luka Modric, arguably the player of the tournament until today … he has been so wonderful and he deserved a moment like that.
"Unfortunately he could not get it done. It wasn't a great penalty, but Kasper Schmeichel - outstanding. He is having some tournament."
But it didn't take long for Modric to find his redemption, showing nerves of steel after such a cruel disappointment to take another crack in the shootout, sending the ball straight down the middle and into the back of the net with his second penalty of the match.
The game started in incredible fashion as Denmark took less than a minute to open the scoring when Croatia failed to defend a goalmouth scramble following a long throw into the box.
Mathias Jorgensen's shot from close range wasn't all that powerful as he struggled to connect but it somehow wormed its way past a defender and through Subasic for a 1-0 lead.
That advantage only lasted until the 3:40m mark though as Croatia hit back with its first attacking raid. A Danish defender tried to clear a ball from inside the area but he kicked it straight into a teammate's head. The ball rebounded back towards goal and landed at Mario Mandzukic's feet and he slammed the ball past Schmeichel and into the back of the net to make it 1-1.
It was the earliest two goals have been scored in any knockout match in World Cup history, and the first time either side has conceded from open play at this tournament. "Simply astonishing," the commentator said.
Croatia had all the running in the first half and Schmeichel was called into action just before the half-hour mark. Rakitic tried his luck from distance but the ball went straight to Schmeichel, who fisted it away, before Rebic followed up with another effort on goal that was parried away by the keeper.
Ivan Perisic was hoping it was third time lucky but he miscued his shot into the ground and it bounced over the bar to end the dramatic sequence of play.
The second half was less eventful as the intensity in the contest dropped off. Nicolai Jorgensen came on as a substitute for Denmark with 25 minutes to play and had an early chance when he received a pass inside the area, turned and shot but he couldn't slip the ball past Schmeichel.
With five minutes left in regulation time Josip Pivaric whipped in a cross from the left and Perisic got his head on the end of it, but the ball looped over the bar. Rakitic drilled a low shot just wide in stoppage time as both teams searched desperately for the goal that would break the deadlock but no one could find a winner and the match went into extra time.
Pione Sisto came on for the final 15 minutes and threatened to hand Denmark the lead with an early touch when he found room inside the area only to send his shot wide of the far post.
Modric then fluffed his lines from the spot before Croatia stood taller in the shootout.