Croatia have beaten Japan on penalties in a closely fought World Cup last 16 tie, to claim a place in the quarter-finals.
Mario Pasalic scored the winning spot kick to see Croatia through 3-1 on penalties on Monday in the tournament’s last game at the Al Janoub Stadium in Wakrah, south of Qatar’s capital.
After a goalless first half that saw goals from Croatia’s Ivan Perisic and Japan’s Daizen Maeda, the game went into a goalless second half.
Both Perisic and Croatian captain Luka Modric, both skilled penalty shooters, had left the field before the final horn.
Dominik Livakovic of Croatia, who will now undoubtedly be hailed as a national hero back home, saved Japan’s first two penalties, which Takumi Minamino and Kaoru Mitoma took. The first two shots from Croatia both found the back of the net.
With Japan’s third shot, Takuma Asano scored. Marko Livaja of Croatia stepped up and casually shot, but it went into the post. Maya Yoshida, the Japanese captain, missed a penalty attempt that was also saved. Pasalic delivered the winning kick to put an end to Japan’s hopes.
Japan was content to play it safe for the entirety of the first half, giving Croatia the majority of the ball, and concentrating instead on lightning-quick counterattacks. Remember that this was the team that had defeated Spain and both Germany in the group round.
Just before the half-hour mark, Croatia enjoyed a terrific stretch of play during which Modric looped in perfect crosses, but his teammates were only able to exert consistent pressure in Japan’s box.
Ivan Perisic scored the equaliser in the 54th minute after a lovely Croatian cross was greeted with a brilliant header. The move came from out of left field; an experimental, probing pass simply dropped to Perisic. His headed strike curved inside the post.
The action gave the game new life. Two minutes later, Japan’s Wataru Endo attempted a response with a curling attempt that goalkeeper Livakovic had to deflect over the bar.
With 15 minutes left in regulation, the ball again fell to Perisic, who unleashed a thunderous shot that Takehiro Tomiyasu deflected high and wide.
Japan appeared to score on the stroke of halves of extra time, but Kaoru Mitoma’s crazy dash ended with a bolting strike straight into Livakovic’s gloves.
Japan exhibited increased vigor throughout the second overtime period, but a solution was still elusive. In the 30th minute of extra time, Croatia finally got a legitimate chance, but Lovro Majer grabbed it up and missed. It came down to penalties then.
Despite not having the best game, Croatia will play the winner of tonight’s match between five-time champions Brazil and South Korea in the quarterfinals at Education City on Friday.