Croatia reach World Cup semi-final as Brazil miss twice in penalty shootout

Brazil and Croatia were locked at 1-1 after extra time and then Rodrygo and Marquinhos failed to score from the penalty spot as Croatia reached the last four

Brazil have had their last dance. This felt more like a slow waltz to the brink for almost two hours but a tense, enervating quarter-final erupted thrillingly in extra-time.

It finished with Neymar sinking to the floor in tears, the majority of a partisan crowd stunned into near-silence, and Croatia’s entire squad giddily giving chase to their man for any penalty shootout occasion. Dominik Livakovic had saved three of Japan’s spot-kicks in the previous round; as soon as he repelled Rodrygo’s effort the writing was on the wall and it is another stunning tournament victory for a team that does not understand the meaning of defeat.

All the same, how on earth did Brazil let this slip? They had lacked control throughout the evening, creating the better chances but finding themselves deprived of possession and territory for long periods by a masterful Croatian midfield.

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But it seemed they, and Neymar in particular, had their moment shortly before the additional period’s midway point. For once a rat-a-tat of passes, first with Rodrygo and then with Lucas Paquetá, paid off and their talisman’s sublime angled finish felt like a defining image of the winter.

Instead it will feature in descriptions of a flightiness that, when all is said and done, will define Brazil’s campaign. Their lead had not been threatened but then, four minutes from the end, the outstanding Josko Gvardiol atoned for his own lapse with an impeccable tackle on Fred. Suddenly they were vulnerable, the pitch opened up by Luka Modric’s simple yet devastating pass into space for Nikola Vlasic.

Croatia had six men around the box to Brazil’s five and the move ended with Mislav Orsic centring from the left for his fellow substitute and Dinamo Zagreb teammate, Bruno Petkovic, to sweep in via a deflection. They had looked out on their feet but Brazil are not the first to discover they are routinely at their most lethal in such circumstances.

That notion recalls their performance against England in extra-time four years ago. Modric was a breathtaking figure in Moscow that evening, galvanising a shattered group and composing all at once.

At 37 he arguably topped it here: while he had been replaced in the 99th minute against Japan, he could be seen skipping towards Brazil’s penalty area as if the previous exchanges had been an irrelevance just as the clock reached three digits.

He had begun in an adapted role, almost a No 10, presumably designed to occupy what was effectively a one-man Brazil midfield consisting of old friend Casemiro. That evolved into a deeper, wider-ranging brief as the questions became more complex but almost every beat was played to perfection.

Neymar cries after losing to Croatia.
Neymar – who didn’t take a penalty in the shootout – cries after losing to Croatia. Photograph: Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images

Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic may lack dynamic attacking options ahead of them but watching them run more than a third of the pitch between them, the old master calling the shots, was a thrill on its own.

Their physical and technical authority took Croatia to their eighth extra-time period in nine knockout ties. It is no coincidence: Brazil were rarely under threat during the 90 minutes but were not allowed to mount waves of pressure and did not create a clear chance until after half-time.

In fairness they can point to a number of saves from Livakovic, who prevented a Gvardiol own goal before blocking twice from Neymar and thwarting Paquetá. The keeper stood tall on all of those occasions, rather than going down quickly and making an aesthetically pleasing finish easier. Like the rest of his team, he had thought the task through.

It appears Brazil had not. Perhaps Tite could not be blamed for retaining the side that danced its way to an exhilarating, joyful win over South Korea but this was always going to be a step up: maybe it was naive to think Neymar, Richarlison, Raphinha and Vinícius Júnior, not to mention the notionally more withdrawn Paquetá, could make merry against such a practised enemy.

When Vinícius Júnior, such a spark over recent weeks, was replaced after 64 minutes it must have felt a personal triumph for the Croatia right-back Josip Juranovic. The Celtic player had been excellent at both ends; Gvardiol and Dejan Lovren had the measure of Richarlison and, while Borna Sosa was outfoxed by Neymar at the end of what appeared the defining sequence, he had largely shackled a subdued Raphinha. Brazil had suffered for being unable to do as they pleased.

The effect of their exertions was made clear in the fact that, when Neymar found the roof of Livakovic’s net after skipping through, more than one of their players fell to the ground. The rest mobbed him in sheer, combusting relief: this was no time to assemble for a pre-rehearsed routine. It was one of this winter’s best-worked goals and meant that, with 77, he equalled Pelé’s scoring record for Brazil.

The recriminations will be bitter but Neymar’s day should come. This one looked bound for Croatia as soon as the burly Petkovic levelled. That was confirmed when Marquinhos struck Livakovic’s right post, four Croatia players having produced perfect penalties. Modric eventually left the pitch after supervising a kickabout between his three children; anything is possible if his legs pull through another nine days.


Nick Ames at Education City Stadium

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