Zlatko Dalic's indefatigable Croatia warriors never know when they are beaten

After going behind in extra-time against five-time World Cup winners Brazil, they somehow found a way to win

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Finally, Croatia were cowed. Borna Sosa lay face down on the turf, the industrious left-back’s desperate lunge across the Education City Stadium goalline just not enough.

Marcelo Brozovic, that tireless presence in the most persevering of engine rooms, was on his haunches, perhaps in the end his energy ultimately sapped.

Josko Gvardiol, one of the defenders of this tournament, was about a yard away, hunched over, hands on knees, staring through his protective face mask at the seemingly inevitable.

In this moment, after this World Cup and even the one before, Croatia were broken. Neymar had scored at the end of the first period of extra-time in the quarter-final and Brazil, the favourites and five-time World Cup winners, were going through. Croatia were gone.

Surely, now, after all the additional minutes in the legs and the penalty shoot-out in the mind, the apparently critical blows and the comebacks, this group of indefatigables had run out of road.

Zlatko Dalic, the manager through Russia and now Qatar, too, wiped his hands across his face and looked to the sky.

Then, almost to everyone’s astonishment when we really should have known better, Croatia dusted themselves down and did what perhaps only Croatia can do. They summoned that inner strength once more, reached down into the depths and battled back to the light. Bruno Petkovic scored, with an albeit-deflected strike three minutes from time, and Croatia carried on.

Into penalties and into the World Cup semi-final. A second successive World Cup semi-final. The country comprising less than four million is once again among the four remaining teams on the game’s grandest stage.

Afterwards, an understandably drained but delighted Dalic said: “We showed again what it means to never give up, what this Croatia team is all about.

“Only Croatia could have done this. That has become sort of normal for us.”

Croatia v Brazil ratings

And that’s it: they have made the abnormal normal. Eight of Croatia’s past nine knockout matches have gone to extra time, the only exception their defeat in the final four years ago. In 2018, they triumphed on penalties against Denmark and Russia; in Qatar, against Japan and Brazil.

But, of course, they are much more than that. On Saturday, as Dalic referenced his side’s remarkable resolve, especially in the shoot-out, he reminded: “First, we have to get to that point.”

Yes, this Croatia grind you down, with their grit, their gumption, their inability to accept they are ever done. For sure, they are unrelenting. But they possess a rare in-game intelligence, too.

Together, they snuff out frailties, force themselves on the opponent, adapt their approach to the subtle nuances of football at its apex, and work out a way.

Little wonder right-back Josip Juranovic believes that, in Brozovic, Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, Croatia boast the best midfield in world football. Juranovic is, granted, more than a little partisan, but the evidence is there. It is compelling. All the way from Russia to Qatar.

Modric may be 37, but he remains the heartbeat of this side, surely inching towards consideration as not only one of the greatest midfielders of his generation, but of any. Much like his team, he is still going, pushing back the boundaries of time and common wisdom.

Dalic labelled the Brazil victory a “true masterpiece from a tactical standpoint”; Modric is his team's chief conductor.

They mix imagination with the irrepressible, an obvious bond running through them and bringing them to the brink of another World Cup final. Defeat Argentina on Tuesday, offer a similarly defiant display at Lusail Stadium, and Croatia will have defied the odds as they always appear to do.

With four remaining, Qatar 2022 has been distilled almost to Lionel Messi’s final coronation, or Morocco’s magnetic history-makers. But who would back against Croatia snatching the spotlight with another extraordinary effort?

Updated: December 13, 2022, 8:49 AM