As Croatia’s players tore across from all directions to mob Mario Pasalic it was tempting to wonder how many of them had recorded their highest speed of the night. Their victory on penalties had been on the cards as soon as the clock ticked into extra time: as Japan’s fire fizzled out, the muscles tightening and knocks mounting, the triumph of deliberate knowhow over slick, joyful but sometimes loose entertainment came to feel as inevitable as the rising sun.
Croatia showed once again that they are the masters of walking football. It is an observation, not a slight: no other top international side lacks pace to such a marked degree but they invariably contrive to make sure it does not matter. That takes a preternatural collective knowhow, an assuredness that the first yard or two are in the head, a confidence that nobody should be putting in more miles than the ball itself. With it comes a pronounced lack of fear about the prospect of taking things the full distance.
At times during the 90 minutes Japan had run Croatia ragged, their right wing-back Junya Ito proving the most exciting player on the pitch while Ritsu Doan took the breath away with his close control and masterful range.
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Logic might have had it that a team with this much energy and speed, this keen an ability to break instantaneously from a compact defensive shape into a flurry of moving parts, would be able to run its adversaries into the ground during an added half-hour. But they faced opponents who come to life in slow motion: Zlatko Dalic’s side dug in, dialled things down and did what they generally do.
The mind drifted back to their extra-time win over England in Moscow four years ago, even if that brought a more entertaining spectacle. Back then, Luka Modric put in perhaps the greatest midfield performance of that tournament, dragging an already tired team along and managing to materialise everywhere while giving the appearance of wading through treacle. Modric was less influential here, even if Ivan Perisic’s picture-perfect header was delivered at a time when his general involvement had noticeably stepped up.
He almost scored from a half-volley and, in the first half, bent a delightful ball into Perisic’s path with the outside of his foot: those were the only highlights-reel moments. But Croatia have a habit of wearing you down while leaving you blissfully unaware in the process: here their technical and physical ease produced a lulling effect, an unspoken agreement that this is the way things always are.
Perhaps the way they always will be, too, judging by the run that has seen six of their last seven knockout ties continue beyond regulation time.
Croatia’s confidence that, however long and laborious the process, events will turn out to their liking is well earned. The thought upon marvelling at Perisic’s equaliser was that, for all the enterprise and initiative of Hajime Moriyasu’s side, only one player on this pitch had scored in a World Cup final. That experience grants you the vision needed to distil a match to your terms, your tempo, your way of pulling through.
The encouragement for Japan is that they are getting closer. This was their fourth round of 16 exit, all of them achingly close and two having been inflicted by spot kicks. The earlier agony from 12 yards came in 2010 at the end of a historically dreary face-off with Paraguay in Pretoria: that Japan team was tough, adept, a handful in most departments, but had little of the brio this vintage displays.
Their best players operate at top European clubs and most are young enough for another crack. If Croatia are proof that lived experience gives you the edge to navigate those fine margins, the shared journey Japan have undertaken in overhauling deficits against Spain and Germany before falling short will surely be archived as a priceless resource to delve into when inspiration is required in future. They are not yet in the top bracket of international sides but the road there is becoming increasingly clear.
Croatia point the way. Perhaps they will have to evolve once Modric, still a peerless traffic director at 37, opts to stand down. That day is, according to Dalic, not coming any time soon.
Modric’s 24-year-old replacement in extra time, Lovro Majer, was a spark after his arrival and dragged a presentable opening wide at the end. But this was another evening for the methodical and the metronomic: Croatia did not quite walk Japan into submission but they led them expertly to the cliff edge.
Modric fiddled with his hair as he walked off, not showing much sign of concern that his days on this stage could have been numbered. He and Croatia will do it all again against Brazil: reducing Vínicius Jr, Neymar and company to their pace could yet have this competition’s likely winners on the run.