Past masters at this, Croatia won another penalty shootout with goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic pulling off three saves to beat Japan and enter the quarter-finals. The penalties by Takumi Minamino, Kauro Mitoma and Maya Yoshida were poor but Croatia didn’t care, their exultation encapsulated by Luka Modric climbing on his goalkeeper and kissing his forehead. Modric lives, the runners-up do too.
Daizen Maeda’s 43rd minute goal for Japan was cancelled by Ivan Perisic in the 55th and with Nikola Vlasic, Marcelo Brozovic and Mario Pasalic converting their penalties, Marko Livaja’s hitting the post didn’t matter. For Japan only Takuma Asano converted his shot.
So focused were Croatia in dealing with crosses, especially from the right by the impressive Ritsu Doan, that right-back Josip Juranovic homed in on a delivery even though there was no clear and present danger. What could have been an embarrassing own goal with his goalkeeper stranded in the area he is supposed to boss over led to a corner kick. Japan played it long and it was cleared for another corner. This time they played it short and went ahead 1-0.
Doan played it to Daichi Kamada who found Junya Ito before the ball came back to the impressive Japan forward. Doan swung it in and the ball ricocheted off Yoshida and was just out of reach of Josko Gvardiol when Maeda knocked it home. For the first time in four games, Japan were leading.
They had begun with the vigour that has been part of this campaign. With 19 of the 26 players based in Europe, this is a team that has come a long way from the squad of J-League players Japan took to the 1998 World Cup, their first.
Successive Round-of-16 berths is also proof of the progress made by the national team of a country that has a 100-year plan in place to win the World Cup. Japan were not intimidated by the runners-up of 2018 and having notched up come-from-behind wins against Germany and Spain why would they be?
Doan’s free-kick in the second minute fetched a corner and then Japan pressed Livakovic but the Croatia goalkeeper managed to get himself out of trouble. Another Doan delivery swung across the Croatia goal with neither Kamada nor Yuto Nagamoto managing a touch despite desperate slides.
Meada’s goal came during a passage of play when Japan were dominant, their refusal to give up summed up by a 41st minute move that needed a back heel by Junya Ito to keep the ball before Maeda fell, got up to beat a player but shanked his shot. With a back three and wing backs Ito and Nagamoto stretching the field and finding the wide players, Japan focused on the sides instead of the centre to try and break Croatia.
Croatia may have Modric, Perisic and the brilliant Gvardiol but Japan also had the skill – as shown by Ito killing a long ball with one touch, by Wataru Endo’s drive from range that Livakovic tipped over and Nagamoto shielding a ball from Perisic before clearing – the speed and never lost the spring in their strides.
It led to a contest in contrasts. Croatia were patient in their attempt to find space, Japan were like a typhoon. Maybe because Croatia were used to games stretching beyond regulation time, six of their last seven in knockout rounds have, maybe because of the experience of over-30 players and maybe because they have Modric, who was given a rousing send-off in the 99th minute at Al Janoub Stadium, Croatia were calm. It was like they had advance warning of a hurricane and hence could minimise damage.
And try to cause some of their own. Perisic stole from Takehiro Tomiyasu, who replaced the suspended Kou Itakura in the back three, but his shot in the eighth minute was saved by Shuichi Gonda. Gvardiol’s ball from deep passed the two lines of defence and reached Bruno Petkovic, who replaced Marko Livaja as Croatia looked for efficiency in front, having scored only in one game in the tournament. But he couldn’t beat Gonda.
Even the equaliser happened because Perisic stayed a step behind and produced a powerful header while the defenders moved ahead.
Tomiyasu’s leg keeping out a Perisic effort in the 78th minute and Modric’s volley from distance palmed over by Gonda took the game to extra-time. By the time penalties were needed, Croatia had four attempts on target, the same as Japan.