Shoot-out kings Croatia hit the spot again as they beat Japan at World Cup

Dalic's men secure 3-1 win on penalties in last 16 after match ending 1-1 after extra-time on Monday

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Surely, at some point, Croatia will run out of gas, right?

They must. On Monday night in Al Wakrah, in their World Cup last-16 clash with Japan, they looked for most of the first half leggy and more than a little lethargic. They even fielded their second-oldest starting line-up at a global finals, coming in at a mite under 30.

In Luka Modric, their inspirational captain, they have a 37-year-old plonked right at their heart, a veritable veteran charged still with setting the tempo and keeping the team ticking.

Zlatko Dalic, the Croatia manager, reckons this won’t actually be Modric’s last major tournament, however outlandish that feels.

At his first, some 6,000 days ago, the diminutive midfielder debuted against Japan, and few would have anticipated he would still be haring around some 16 years later, attempting to see off the same opponents.

But he and Croatia did. Almost incredibly, Dalic’s indefatigable lot are through to yet another World Cup quarter-finals, the runners-up in Russia sustaining in Qatar 2022.

Four years ago, Croatia required penalties, twice, and another tranche of extra-time to negotiate three knockout games to reach the final. In all three, they came from behind.

So it should not surprise, really, that on Monday they travelled that route again. At Al Janoub Stadium, they conceded first, rallied as it seems sometimes only Croatia can, prevailed on penalties and booked a place in the last eight.

Even Modric left the fray early, withdrawn just before the clock ticked to a ton, perhaps a sign that time does catch up with us all eventually.

Not, though, for this Croatia. Not now anyway. Dominik Livakovic played the protagonist, saving three of Japan's spot-kicks to thrust his team into the quarter-finals. Japan, never before to that point, exited a World Cup from the last 16 for a fourth time.

Just how far this Croatia side can go remains to be seen; they have lost a number of the key figures from 2018, and there's many more yards in the legs of those that remain. But here there are, still in with a shot.

How did they get there? Rewind all the way back, and it was Japan who took a deserved lead minutes before half-time. Some neat link-up play concluded with Ritsu Doan whipping in a deliciously tempting cross, the ball ricocheted off Maya Yoshida and fell invitingly to Daizan Maeda, who stroked home from close range. There was a check for offside, but the goal stood.

But 10 minutes into the second half, Ivan Perisic equalised. Playing wide left of the front three, the Tottenham wing-back met Dejan Lovren’s deep cross to power a header past Shuichi Gonda in the Japan goal.

It was Perisic’s 10th goal for Croatia at a major tournament, lifting him above Davor Suker in his country’s all-time leading scorer in World Cups and European Championships combined.

It elevated Perisic to exalted company overall: he is one of only four men to score at the past three global finals, snuggling alongside Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and, maybe surprisingly, Xherdan Shaqiri.

From there, Livakovic tipped over Endo’s curled effort from range, while Gonda repelled superbly Modric’s dipping half volley. Then Croatia substitute Ante Budimir flashed wide a header.

Towards the end of the first period of extra-time, substitute Kaora Mitoma covered all of 50-odd yards and stung Livakovic’s palms with a rasping drive.

By then Modric was gone, so too Perisic and Mateo Kovacic; three of Croatia’s most prominent performers, ultimately run into the ground and subsequently pulled from the action.

In the very last minute, Modric’s replacement, Lovro Majer, pulled his low shot off target. Of course, it would be decided on penalties.

Takumi Minamino went first, but Livakovic saved. He did the next as well, from Mitoma. Finally, Takuma Asano got Japan on the board.

Then Marko Livaja, too casual in his walk-up, struck the post. But Yoshida, the captain, could not find his way past Livakovic either. Midfielder Mario Pasalic did the rest.

Croatia had done it. They'd gone to the well once more. Fortunately, for them, they can't see the bottom just yet.

Updated: December 05, 2022, 10:07 PM