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This tenacious Croatia side simply refuse to die and shone a light on how to topple the former World Cup favourites Brazil. Nerves jangling from the mere hint of penalty kicks for most, Croatia instead relish this intense mental battle on the sport’s biggest stage, thriving when it matters most.
Before the penalty drama though, Zlatko Dalic unveiled a blueprint with more nuance than simply surviving and a reliance on the warrior-like defending at their disposal. Josip Juranovic emerged as an unlikely talisman as the 2018 runners-up shook the Selecao at times with a number of adventurous forrays into the final third.
Anticipation or a quick reaction, Croatia coped admirably with Tite’s desire to push as many of his star-studded attack into the final third, made possible by Danilo’s unusual role. With Mario Pasalic initially working back and keeping an eye on Vini Jr, the Juventus defender stepped up and tucked inside to sit with Casemiro at the base of the midfield when the Selecao had possession.
A 3-2-3-2 or 3-2-1-4, depending on how generous you are when interpreting Neymar’s movement between the lines. The four forwards parked themselves across the Croatia penalty area, with Lucas Paqueta an isolated yellow flash between the lines. It meant Richarlison’s influence was heightened and necessary to connect with Neymar and the wide players. Croatia’s plan appeared to rely on limiting Vini Jr’s explosive movement off his first touch with Richarlison able to post up on Dejan Lovren, who couldn’t wriggle around the side of him. But despite an immaculate return ball, the Real Madrid star’s finish was blocked. It was a rare opening amid resolute Croatia defending, but the more expansive side of the plan was to come.
The masterplan mostly relied on Juranovic picking his moments to venture beyond the selfless Mario Pasalic, with tantalising space behind Danilo with Thiago Silva positioned left of a narrow back three.
With many anticipating this to be Luka Modric’s last World Cup match, before extending this famous last dance, the midfield maestro dropped into the space Juranovic left, gaining a vantage point to assess the pitch and typically orchestrating the play from this unusual area.
Dalic’s hope was to attack down Brazil’s right flank with speed, but the potential for these ambitious forrays into the final third depended on just how far Juranovic dared to go.
The Selecao’s zonal marking with three centre-backs spread across the width of their penalty area ensured Andrej Kramaric and Pasalic could wander across the pitch without Marquinhos or Thiago Silva tempted out of position.
If Croatia were patient, chances for a monumental upset would emerge. And as Pasalic hugged the touchline in the 13th minute and then received the ball from a rampaging Juranovic, the Celtic full-back sent out a warning by penetrating the space between Silva and Marquinhos.
Juranovic couldn’t get there and Marquinhos failed to spot Ivan Perisic’s belated dash towards the near post in time, but the finish was all wrong.
Pass and move, drive into the space; Croatia were ready to capitalise on Brazil’s overly aggressive formation and thrive in transition.
Brazil remained stubborn to their own gameplan and so Croatia swiftly continued to use the blueprint after the restart. Juranovic continued to dovetail nicely with Pasalic after being set free by the masterful Modric.
Feeding Pasalic on the outside and dragging Brazil across the pitch, the switch was not quite precise enough to Perisic, who controlled and floated a dangerous ball towards the six-yard box. The ball agonisingly close to Kramaric after a belated run into the box, something seldom seen throughout the contest.
With any gameplan to topple the favourites, a slice of good fortune is required. Firstly Neymar’s greed inside the box with Vini Jr free to his right for the return ball. Although the flag was raised for offside soon after as panic spread inside the Croatia box.
And then a cruel deflection from Rodrygo's cross off Josip Gvardiol, which landed kindly to Paqueta, who stabbed towards goal and forced Dominik Livakovic into an excellent save.
Weary legs, as Croatia entered extra-time once more, naturally dimmed hopes of an upset, although Bruno Petkovic's fancy footwork and a cool head to slide the ball right to Marcelo Brozovic offered a glorious chance. Spurned as the Inter Milan midfielder fired into the stands, the game soon exploded. First through Neymar’s sublime opener with glorious interplay and a ruthless finish into the roof of the net.
But you simply cannot dismiss this Croatia side, who are cold inside and steadfast in their belief one more chance will come. And so it did. Petkovic sweeping home with the ball spinning up and past Alisson after Marquinhos’ deflection.
It was merely a preview to the horror show that would follow, as Marquinhos froze, hitting a post to ensure Croatia’s legacy lives on.