Old habits die hard, as Croatia and Japan can testify. The 2018 finalists took another World Cup tie to extra time before triumphing over a Japan team that was condemned to yet another last-16 exit on penalties.
Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was the Croatian hero with three saves in the shootout. Japan’s penalties were as poor as the previous 120 minutes had been as Livakovic saved low from Takumi Minamino, Kaoru Mitoma and the captain, Maya Yoshida, before Mario Pasalic converted Croatia’s fourth and third successful spot-kick.
Six of Croatia’s last seven knockout games at major tournaments have gone to extra time, the only exception being their final defeat by France in Russia four years ago, and cool heads prevailed yet again.
Japan’s veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo had evoked the spirit of the Samurai on the eve of the game but this was less warrior and more hypnotherapist trying to cure insomnia. Incense burning in the corner. The game had penalties written all over it long before the painful reality arrived for Japan, who have now suffered four World Cup exits at the last-16 stage.
Hajime Moriyasu’s team had merited a half-time lead on account of sharper distribution, movement and intelligent set-pieces, although it was a low-quality affair. There was a subdued atmosphere in the stands where thousands of seats remained empty in the 44,325-capacity arena and 42,523 was given as the official attendance. Not a chance.
There was a sluggish first-half performance from Croatia too with Zlatko Dalic’s players showing signs of tiredness in their fourth game of the tournament. Their dulled edges allowed Japan to avoid punishment for several defensive errors. Samurai Blue took the game to Croatia initially. Shogo Taniguchi sent a glancing header wide from a well-worked short corner involving Junya Ito and Wataru Endo. The defender’s reaction confirmed he should have found the target after escaping the attentions of opposition centre-halves Dejan Lovren and Josko Gvardiol.
Ito frequently beat Borna Barisic for pace and his deliveries from the right unsettled the Croatia defence in the opening exchanges. Daizen Maeda and Nagatomo both just failed to connect with one inviting cross along the face of goal. Daichi Kamada squandered another decent opportunity, slicing over after Hidemasa Morita, Maeda and Endo had combined impressively to release him inside the Croatia area.
Croatia’s brightest moments of a flat first half stemmed from Japanese errors rather than their gifted midfield of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic. Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu committed the first when, attempting to turn a long clearance back to the safety of his goalkeeper, he received a slight push from Ivan Perisic and mis-kicked.
The Tottenham midfielder sprinted clear but was denied from a tight angle by the Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda. The lumbering Bruno Petkovic, handed his first start of the World Cup, was crowded out on the rebound. Petkovic found himself through on goal when Gvardiol’s long ball out of defence resulted in a breakdown in communications in Japan’s backline. The Dinamo Zagreb forward lacked the pace to execute a finish but had Andrej Kramaric completely unmarked to his right. A woeful attempt to find his fellow striker summed up Croatia’s first-half display.
Japan established a deserved lead shortly before the break from another smart corner routine. Ritsu Doan, rewarded with a start for his goalscoring substitute appearances against Germany and Spain, played it short to Kamada. He found Morita, who returned possession to Doan. Taniguchi met the attacking midfielder’s inswinging cross with a glancing header that struck Petkovic and fell perfectly for Maeda, and the Celtic striker gave Livakovic no chance from close range.
At that stage the World Cup was drifting away from Croatia and the 2018 runners-up were heading home with a whimper. But they produced the second-half improvement that was desperately required to drag another tournament knockout tie to extra time.
Croatia levelled 10 minutes after the restart and in style when Perisic met Lovren’s deep cross with a precise, powerful header into Gonda’s bottom left-hand corner. It travelled some distance too and brought Perisic his 10th goal at a major tournament, overtaking Davor Suker’s Croatian record of nine.
Gonda tipped over to prevent Modric edging Croatia ahead with a dipping shot from 25 yards and Livakovic did likewise to deny Endo at the other end. Otherwise there was precious little incident or finesse as the tie drifted towards extra time, where the miserable ordeal continued. Nikola Vlasic and Brozovic scored their spot-kicks before Marko Livaja casually hit a post but, with Japan losing their nerve and Livakovic excelling, it fell to Pasalic to send Croatia through.