Agencies, Sochi, Croatia and Russia did just about enough to emerge successful from their respective round of 16 matches but will need to replicate their group stage form and attacking mindset when they clash in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-finals in Sochi.
The hosts came into the tournament as the lowest-ranked team but began with a bang by beating Saudi Arabia 5-0 and Egypt 3-1. They went down 3-0 to Group A winners Uruguay but won over critics at both home and away with their approach.
Russia changed tactics to play five men in defence with a lone striker in Artem Dzyuba against Spain in the round of 16 on Sunday, an approach that restricted their opponents to just one chance in 90 minutes.
But Russia themselves also had just one shot on target in two hours of football and needed two saves by their goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev in the penalty shootout to advance to the last eight and send the country into a soccer frenzy.
Spain appeared bereft of ideas in front of the opposition box, letting Russia get away with defending for almost the entire duration of the match. But the hosts might not be so lucky against the Balkan side on Saturday.
“We all understood that Spain will control the ball, it happens in every match they play with any team,” Russia midfielder Aleksandr Golovin said.
“We understood that. With the Croats we should play using our strong points, dictating our play.”
Croatia showed flashes of their stellar attacking game when they beat Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland to top their group. But, like Russia, they took a defensive route to the last eight with a 3-2 shootout win over Denmark.
With players such as world-class midfielder Luka Modric and a string of top-level forwards including Mario Mandzukic, Ante Rebic, Andrej Kramaric and Ivan Perisic, Zlatko Dalic’s team scored at least two goals in each of their three group matches, including firing three past hapless Argentina.
They are much more potent in attack compared to Spain and could cause Russia trouble with their quick passing game and crosses aimed for Mandzukic.
“I think we primarily must focus on ourselves because I think our team has bigger quality, we just need to show that on the pitch and we will be able to set the tone,” Rebic told reporters during the week.
Russia’s success will depend on how they manage to rein in the likes of Modric and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic, and then hit on the counter as they have done with such surprising success at the tournament.
On many occasions, Modric fell back against Denmark, which cut Croatia’s supply line to their strikers, and the Real Madrid midfielder would look to avoid hanging in too deep against Russia.
Going to penalties will not be an ideal ploy for both sides with Russia boasting Akinfeev between the posts while their opponents will have Danijel Subasic, who against Denmark became only the second keeper in World Cup history to make three saves in their shootout win.
The current Croatian squad is one win away from matching their 1998 success of reaching the semi-finals. The hosts, meanwhile, have already punched much above their weight and will hope the partisan crowd at the Fisht Stadium by the Black Sea will carry them even further.