AL-WAKRAH, Qatar -- Four years after their stunning World Cup run in Russia, Croatia are looking to do it all again. They knocked out Japan 3-1 on penalties after a 1-1 draw at Al Janoub Stadium to move into the quarterfinals. They'll face either Brazil or South Korea in a quarterfinal on Friday.
The Croatians did it by at least partially turning Japan's favored script on its head, falling behind against the tournament's upset artists just before half-time then levelling with a resounding header from Ivan Perisic early in the second half. Neither side could make a convincing claim for deserving the win in extra time, and Dominik Livakovic saved the first two Japanese penalties to give Croatia a hammerlock on the shootout. After another Livakovic save, Mario Pasalic blasted the final penalty past Shuichi Gonda, and the Croatians poured onto the field.
Japan, the tournament's consensus Cinderella after beating Germany and Spain in the group stage, went ahead just before the break with a close-range blast from Daizen Maeda, and it felt like another upset could be in their hands. But after a first half in which they were often too casual in possession, Croatia was more precise after the interval and had the better chances as the game went on.
Japan had their moments -- Kaoru Mitoma's deflected shot in the first half of extra-time was hopeful -- but ultimately couldn't find another bit of late drama. When Takumi Minamino and Mitoma then missed from the spot, the final result felt inevitable.
1. Croatia is back again -- and they've got more than just Modric
While Croatia was certainly the betting favourite coming into the game, their coach, Zlatko Dalic, was determined to paint his team as the lively underdogs they've proved themselves to be in European football.
"The population of Croatia is 4 million, and the results we have achieved on the world stage are miraculous," Dalic said. It's hard to argue: After being surprise finalists in Russia, they took Spain to extra time in the round of 16 at Euro 2020, and now they're back into the final eight.
While veteran Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric is still the focal point, their quality runs far deeper. Their first goal was a remarkable bit of individual brilliance. After a few directionless passes, Dejan Lovren sent in a swooping cross that Perisic absolutely hammered with a header from 15 yards out and Gonda's dive was just for show.
Some of Dalic's substitutions surely raised some eyebrows -- by the shootout, Modric, Perisic, Mateo Kovacic and Andrej Kramaric had all been taken off -- but the coach's faith in his bench was proved as Croatia got through.
It's also worth highlighting Perisic's prowess in the World Cup: In addition to leveling the score in this match, he also scored tying goals in the semifinal and final four years ago. His six career World Cup goals ties him with Davor Suker -- winner of the Golden Boot at the 1998 World Cup -- for the most in Croatia's history.
2. Japan inspire ... but relive a nightmare
The psychological aftereffects of what happened to the Japanese in 2018 -- when they gave up three goals in the final 21 minutes to lose to Belgium 3-2 in the round of 16 in Russia -- hung heavy over this game. Veteran Yuto Nagatomo said in the buildup he was haunted by the result, and memories from the night frequently popped into his mind at random moments over the past four years, forcing him to relive the disappointment.
With another opportunity at the same stage, Nagatomo exhorted his teammates to be courageous and, in his words, "make history" as the first Japanese team to reach the final eight of a World Cup. He even invoked the Japanese samurai, saying: "If they are scared in battle, they will not be able to use their weapons fully. It's the same in football."
Early on, Japan did that. Their plan to play from the wings was a clear attempt to neutralise Croatia's advantage in the middle and they created several chances from out wide before taking the lead.
In the second half, though, they looked uncomfortable playing with the lead and their vaunted counterattack never quite clicked as the game went on, while the shootout was disappointing from the start.
In the end, a tournament of inspiration for Japan ends with a familiarly brutal finish.
3. The next step may be the toughest for Croatia
Croatia's reward for making it through 120 minutes of back-and-forth, emotional battle? Either a South Korean group riding the upset of their lives or, more likely, tournament favourites Brazil.
At this point, it's hard to argue that Croatia wouldn't have a puncher's chance -- Modric, even at 37, can still change any game -- but Brazil's depth will be a major advantage. Croatia survived a gruelling finish to the group stage and then went the distance here, so fatigue (both mental and physical) will be a factor.
And yet still: They did it four years ago and could surely do it again. Plus, a hot goalkeeper can always be the great equaliser, and after making three saves in the shootout, Livakovic will be flying.
Player ratings (1 = worst, 10 = best)
Croatia: Dominik Livakovic 8, Josip Juranovic 7, Dejan Lovren 8, Josko Gvardiol 7, Borna Barisic 7, Luka Modric 6, Marcelo Brozovic 8, Mateo Kovacic 7, Andrej Kramaric 6, Bruno Petkovic 6, Ivan Perisic 7.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Dominik Livakovic
It doesn't get much better for a team in a shootout than having their goalkeeper stop the opponent's first two shooters. Livakovic was solid over 120 minutes and then delivered just what his team needed in penalties.
WORST: Maya Yoshida
Hard to find a suitable candidate here as both teams waged a very even battle, but after Marko Livaja hit the post for Croatia in the shootout, giving Japan a glimmer of hope, Yoshida immediately followed up with a weak penalty that Livakovic saved easily to remove any drama.
Highlights and notable moments
Mario Pasalic stepped up and scored the winning penalty for Croatia in the shootout, sparking wild celebrations among his team.
CROATIA WINS IT IN PENALTIES 🇭🇷 pic.twitter.com/xV6UmuHHuR— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 5, 2022
After the match: What the players and managers said
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu: "The players showed a new era of Japanese football. They should use this feeling of being upset and try to go further next time. We cannot be superheroes in one go. We have to improve step by step. But Japan is reaching a level where we can play on the world stage. I asked the players to decide for themselves on penalties, and of course maybe some of them could score and some could not, but the players still needed to try under immense pressure, and I think I would like to praise their efforts."
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic: "This is a great result; we fought the whole match and in the end we were rewarded. We had control of the first half, and two or three counterattacks introduced some anxiety and we conceded a goal and had to pull ourselves together. That goal messed us up a bit. But I have nothing to complain about. The boys, they did their best and ran the game brilliantly."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
Japan's opening goal was their first in the first half of a match in this year's World Cup. The only other Asian team to score the first goal of a game in the knockout phase at the World Cup was North Korea in 1966, when they lost 5-3 to Portugal.
Japan's lead was their first at half-time of a World Cup match since a 2010 group stage match against Denmark when they led 2-0.
Japan are the first AFC team to score the first goal of a knockout phase game since they did so themselves in 2018 against Belgium, a game they went on to lose 3-2.
Ivan Perisic's goal tied him with Davor Suker for the most World Cup goals in Croatia's history (6). Perisic also tied Mario Mandzukic for the second-most goals for the Croatian men's senior national team (33). Only Davor Suker (45) has more.
However, with his 10th goal at a World Cup or Euros, the Tottenham Hotspur winger overtook Suker to become the Croatian with the most goals for the men's national team at a major tournament.
Perisic has scored the last three equalising goals in the knockout stage of the World Cup for Croatia. He scored levellers in both the semifinals and final of the 2018 World Cup.
Dejan Lovren's assist for Perisic's equaliser was his first ever in a competitive fixture for Croatia. It was also his first assist in all competitions since Dec. 4 2019, when he set up a goal for Divock Origi in Liverpool's 5-2 win over Everton.
Japan's last World Cup match to go to extra time was in the 2010 round of 16 against Paraguay. That game eventually went to a shootout, which they also lost.
If Luka Modric plays in the quarterfinal, he will become the sixth UEFA player to reach 160 career appearances with a men's senior international team.
Japan: The Samurai Blue have no matches in their schedule at present, but they are sure to be arranging some pre-tournament friendlies ahead of the AFC Asian Cup, due to be held in Qatar next summer.
Croatia: After that game went the full distance, Croatia have four days to recover before their quarterfinal clash against either Brazil or South Korea, who play their round-of-16 tie later on Monday. That game will be staged at Education City Stadium on Friday at 3 p.m. local time/7 a.m. ET.