AL-RAYYAN, Qatar -- They did it again. Croatia, four years after a stunning run to the final in Russia, are back in the World Cup semifinals after upsetting Brazil 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw to knock out the tournament favorites. They will face the Netherlands or Argentina next week.
Brazil, and the thousands of the yellow-shirted fans who packed Education City Stadium, were left stunned. Marquinhos collapsed to the ground in shock after his decisive penalty rebounded off the left post while Croatia's goalkeeper, Dominik Livakovic, led his teammates on a glorious sprint toward the middle of the field.
It seemed as though Brazil had the game -- after some considerable effort -- in their hands. Neymar's goal at the end of the first period of extra time felt decisive, but Croatia didn't wilt. Mislav Orsic brought the ball down the left and cut it back for Bruno Petkovic, whose left-footed strike took a deflection and nestled into the back of the net in the 117th minute. (It was also Croatia's first shot on target.)
When Rodrygo had Brazil's first attempt in the shootout saved by Livakovic, Croatia had command and didn't let go. Orsic's fourth penalty was drilled perfectly into the left corner; Marquinhos then tried to replicate, but wasn't precise enough. Brazil were out. Croatia -- again -- were through.
1. Livakovic gives his team a chance -- and they take it
Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic called Brazil's depth "scary" in the buildup to this quarterfinal, but then qualified that by saying his team shouldn't be afraid. And why not? They had a game plan they believed in and a goalkeeper in the form of his life.
After carrying Croatia through the shootout win over Japan in the round of 16 with three saves, Livakovic was even more impressive here. Dalic organized his team in an effort to hold the ball and choke off Brazil's ability to break -- which largely worked -- but there were always going to be cracks. And Livakovic filled nearly all of them.
Yes, Josip Juranovic and Josko Gvardiol snuffed out plenty of Brazilian opportunities, but Livakovic was the backstop. He set a Croatian World Cup record with nine saves, including critical stops on Neymar (more than once) and Lucas Paqueta, as well an incredible reaction stop on Gvardiol, who nearly turned the ball into his own net just after half-time.
Without him, Petkovic's shot -- Croatia's first attempt on target of the game -- doesn't matter at all. With him, it was everything.
2. Neymar ties Pele's record -- but it isn't enough
As they arrived at the stadium about 90 minutes before kickoff, Neymar was the only player to emerge from Brazil's bus wearing sunglasses (he kept them on even once inside the stadium) and he joined, just for a moment, Vinicius Junior in dancing his way into the dressing room. Brazil, for all the pressure that comes with being favorites, have tried to have fun at this tournament.
This match was work, though, and Brazil spent most of it being stymied. The Croatian defense collapsed on Neymar over and over, Vinicius Jr. never quite got going and Richarlison -- who has been one of the players of the tournament -- was rarely a factor. After the romp over South Korea, Brazil's attack was sluggish all night. At the end of 90 minutes, Neymar swiped at the grass in irritation.
Neymar did have his moment of brilliance: Brazil had tried their one-two routine with no success several times earlier, but this time it came off perfectly. Few players would have the presence of mind to slip to the side of Livakovic, stay upright and finish from the angle Neymar had, but the Brazilian superstar made it look simple and tied Pele with 77 international goals, most by a Brazilian in history.
A heady honor for Neymar, to be sure. But on a night he'll surely prefer to forget.
3. How far can Modric and Croatia go?
If this ends up being Luka Modric's final World Cup -- and he said as much before the tournament -- the 37-year-old will leave his sport's biggest stage after two of the game's most remarkable runs.
The second-place finish at the Russia World Cup was historic, and Croatia's performance here has been hard to fathom: the come-from-behind victory over Canada and grinding stalemate with Belgium in the group stage to qualify, then a stout and steady performance against Japan, the tournament's Cinderella, to reach the last eight before the Friday elimination of Brazil.
It feels as though Croatia should be tired -- eight of their last nine knockout matches at major tournaments have required 120 minutes -- but somehow they just keep rolling. Modric's motor still purrs in the midfield, the defense has been brick sturdy and they seem to always find a way to meet the moment.
They'll likely be underdogs against either Netherlands or Argentina but ... would you pick against them at this point?
Player ratings (1 = worst, 10 = best)
Croatia: Dominik Livakovic 8, Josip Juranovic 8, Dejan Lovren 7, Josko Gvardiol 7, Borna Sosa 7, Luka Modric 8, Marcelo Brozovic 8, Mateo Kovacic 8, Mario Pasalic 7, Andrej Kramaric 6, Ivan Perisic 7.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Dominik Livakovic
It wasn't quite the spotlight of the shootout against Japan, but the Croatian goalkeeper used his feet, his hands and whatever else he needed to blunt Brazil for most of the night and keep his team in the game.
It feels cruel to tag him with this but when you miss the penalty that sends your team out of the competition, after being part of a defence that conceded so late in the game, it's hard to look elsewhere. A brutal finish.
Highlights and notable moments
Neymar initiated an attack near the end of the first period of extra time, and finished off a stunning team move to score the opening goal.
WHAT A MOMENT 🙌— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 9, 2022
With this goal, Neymar equals Pelé's all-time goal scoring record for Brazil 🇧🇷 pic.twitter.com/DE8IpsBf5N
But, despite Brazil scoring one of the goals of the tournament in extra time, Croatia's late leveller took the match to penalties, where Marquinhos' kick hit the post and sealed his team's exit.
OFF THE POST— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 9, 2022
CROATIA WINS IT 😱🇭🇷 pic.twitter.com/N6BsJVP2PI
After the match: What the players and managers said
Brazil midfielder Casemiro: "Losing always hurts, especially when you have a goal, a dream and you have worked toward it for years. Four years to this moment. That is why it is hard to find words right now. Now we have to pick our heads up. Life goes on. We are sad, I am certain that everyone in the group did their best. We are upset by the way it happened. It was in our hands and it slipped right through. It is a difficult moment. But we are calm and we know that life goes on."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
This was the 26th match to be 0-0 at half-time. Only the 1990 World Cup had more matches be 0-0 at half-time (28).
Dominik Livakovic's nine saves set a record for a Croatia goalkeeper at a World Cup. Drazen Ladic made seven saves against Netherlands in the 1998 third-place playoff. Livakovic is tied with Poland's Wojciech Szczesny for most saves in a single match at the 2022 World Cup.
This was Croatia's fifth World Cup match to go to extra time. In all, eight of Croatia's past nine knockout matches at major tournaments have gone to extra time.
As well as equalling Pele's haul of 77 goals, Neymar's first open-play goal for his country since Since October 2021 saw him join Ronaldo as only Brazilian men to score multiple goals at three different FIFA World Cups.
Bruno Petkovic's 117th minute equaliser was Croatia's latest-ever goal at a World Cup, and the latest equaliser in World Cup history. It was also Croatia's first shot on target.
Brazil had won three of their four previous World Cup shootouts, only losing against France in 1986.
Croatia have won all four of their World Cup penalty shootouts, going level with Germany as the teams with the most wins without losing a single shootout.
Brazil have been eliminated in five straight FIFA World Cup knockout stage games vs European opponents.
Croatia have advanced to the semifinals in all three of their FIFA World Cup quarterfinal appearances (1998, 2018, 2022).
Croatia: Modric & Co. will now be preparing for a huge semifinal clash against Argentina or Netherlands on Tuesday at Lusail Iconic Stadium.
Brazil: The Selecao head home without any international fixtures scheduled for 2023 as yet. Which is probably just as well, as this result will take some getting over.