Rule number one of playoff football (i.e. knockout rounds), anything can happen. Rule number two, a hot goalkeeper can make all the difference. Croatia’s Dominik Livaković is proving that concept exists not just in ice hockey.
The 27-year-old whom we might remember from our games against Dinamo Zagreb, was once the again the penalty shootout hero just like in the previous round against Japan, as Croatia broke Brazilian hearts and advanced to the semifinals for the second successive World Cup. Since winning it all in 2002, Brazil have been eliminated at this stage in four of the five tournaments.
It was all Brazil throughout much of regulation and extra-time, with Croatia generally doing a good job stifling Brazil’s scintillating attack, and Livaković coming up big when they did break through (especially early in the second half). But not even Livaković could do much about Neymar turning on the flair, playing a series of one-twos through the middle of the pitch and finishing into the roof of the net after rounding the goalkeeper in extra-time. It was his 77th international goal, drawing him level with Pele for the all-time Brazil mark.
It looked like they would be well on their way with the goal, but Croatia mounted an unlikely comeback in the second-half of extra time, and thanks to a deflection off Marquinhos, were able to level proceedings and force a shootout. Neymar was set to go fifth; he never got a chance. Rule number three, don’t have your biggest star go last.
Thiago Silva’s World Cup dream thus ends in heartbreak. Mateo Kovačić & Co move on to face the other massive power of South American football, after Argentina dispatched the Netherlands without too much trouble — Lionel Messi setting up one in the first half and scoring another in the second (from the penalty spot) to keep his own World Cup dream alive.
Or at least it looked like they would have no trouble, until the final 10 minutes of regulation, when Wout Weghorst put his head to good use and cut the Dutch deficit in half. And still it looked like Argentina would have no real problems, until Weghorst popped up again, this time on the end of a cute set piece routine, to complete the two-goal comeback with the final kick of added-on time.
Extra time produced no winner, so to penalties we headed again, where Emi Martinez did his thing like Livaković and saved a couple. Messi went first for Argentina.