Croatia needed penalties to overcome Denmark to secure a 2018 FIFA World Cup quarter-final with hosts Russia.
Both sides scored in the opening minutes in Nizhny Novgorod, with Mathias Jørgensen putting Denamrk into a shock lead before Mario Mandžukić quickly responded.
Croatia were then frustrated through the second half and extra time by the Danes, with Kasper Schmeichel then saving a late penalty from Luka Modrić. Danijel Subašić kept three Danish penalties out in the shootout, with Ivan Rakitić scoring the winning spot kick.
A stunning opening four minutes
Croatia returned to the scene of their 3-0 thumping of Argentina in the group stages, and reverted to the same line-up from that game, with the nine changes Zlatko Dalić made for their win over Iceland reversed. Denmark could welcome back Yussuf Poulsen from suspension at the expense of Pione Sisto, whilst Jonas Knudsen also came in for Jens Stryger Larsen from the drab goalless draw against France that sealed their passage.
Croatia are probably the strongest side left in this half of the draw following Russia’s shock victory over Spain, however they could not have begun in worse fashion here. Denmark won an early throw, put in long by Knudsen into the box. Croatia could not deal with it, but Thomas Delaney got a slight touch towards Jørgensen, who took his chance to put his side in the lead in the first 60 seconds of the match.
Yet their lead didn’t last for long. Croatia broke through their right with Ante Rebić and Šime Vrsaljko, with the latter’s cross then cleared by Henrik Dalsgaard straight into Andreas Christensen’s face, and Mandžukić pounced to put the ball past Simon Kjær and Schmeichel and bring the game level. Neither side had conceded from open play in the group stages, yet both had done just that in the first four minutes.
Eriksen dangerous but Croatia dominate
The game settled into a rhythm after that, with Croatia taking control. Ivan Perišić had a good chance to give them the lead from a free-kick, but he could only hit the wall, whilst Mandžukić thought he should have had a penalty after Knudsen grabbed a hold of his shirt as he was going for an Ivan Strinić cross. The referee thought otherwise, and VAR concurred with his decision.
Most of Denmark’s attacking plays inevitable seemed to involve Christian Eriksen, on the occasions he saw the ball at least, and on one occasion he helped to ball to Martin Braithwaite who got past Dejan Lovren but couldn’t beat Subašić. Croatia remained dangerous, with Schmeichel making a double save off Rakitić from outside the box and then Rebić follow-up on the left, before eventually Perišić fired over.
They remained dangerous in the closing stages of the half as well. Lovren’s flick on a Modrić free-kick went wide, whilst Rakitić forced Schmeichel into another save, albeit a more straightforward one. They had another scare at the other end though, with Eriksen scraping the corner of the woodwork, aiming for the top corner after a one-two with Poulsen.
Denmark alterations leave Croatia flummoxed
Åge Hareide brought on Lasse Schöne at half-time, whilst encouraging his full-backs to push further forward, a move which seemed to put Croatia on the back foot as the Danes looked more positive. That lead to a chance created by a Poulsen run into the box, but Martin Braithwaite inexplicably struck the ball straight out wide rather than aiming it at goal.
Croatia were struggling to shift the tide. Perišić tried to force the issue on a couple of occasions, whilst a neat spell of passing following a corner led to a half chance to Rebić, which was punched clear by Schmeichel. Both managers responded with changes. Mateo Kovačić came on for Croatia, whilst Denmark encouraged enough to bring on Nicolai Jørgensen, who would have a shot saved by Subašić six minutes after his introduction.
There were signs though that Croatia were coming back into the game. Modrić and Rebić both had half chances, before Perišić flicked on a cross from Josip Pivarić just over the bar with his head. Some trickery on the ball from Rebić then led to a deflected Pivarić shot earning a corner, which after being cleared was into the hands of Schmeichel from outside the box by Rakitić.
Both sides had one more chance to win it before extra time. A shot from Rakitić sailed wide, whilst after an Eriksen corner was punched away by Subašić, Braithwaite tried to score with the rebound but he also went wide. An extra 30 minutes would be required.
Goalkeepers impress in shootout but Rakitić wins it
Denmark continued to have the upper hand at the start of extra time, testing Croatia once more with Knudsen’s long throws and plenty of doggedness in open play. When they had a sight of goal though, they couldn’t take it. Schöne received the ball from a Jørgensen head but could only put his shot wide.
Croatia were only able to test Denmark from corners before half-time in extra time, and another canny change from Hareide saw him bring on Sisto at the break. His pace caused problems immediately, with a couple of lively runs, the second of which led to him shooting across goal, but wide.
Suddenly, a world-class pass from Modrić played through Rebić, who looked certain to score, only for Mathias Jørgensen to bring him down. The referee pointed to the spot, with VAR seeing no reason to overturn the penalty, however Schmeichel went the right way and claimed the ball to keep Denmark’s hopes alive.
There was still time for Schmeichel to make another save from Modrić from open play, whilst Andrej Kramarić curled well off target, but Schmeichel’s heroics had been enough to force a penalty shootout.
Both opening penalties, from Eriksen and Milan Badelj, were saved by Subašić and Schmeichel, with the next four all scored, including Modrić, who just beat Schmeichel down the middle. Schöne, Pivarić and Nicolai Jørgensen were then denied by the keepers, giving Rakitić the chance to win it. He coolly sent Schmeichel the wrong way to seal a second World Cup quarter-final, somehow, for Croatia.