Knockout Day 2: 60 Extra Minutes, A Dark Horse Emerges

July 2, 2018

Before today, it had been 22 years since two teams went into extra time on the same day—then, it was the 1986 quarterfinals, with France taking down Brazil on the same Sunday that West Germany defeated hosts Mexico—both ended in penalties (there was Golden Goal then) and West Germany went all the way to the final where they eventually lost to Argentina and Diego Maradona. Today, another European giant were eliminated from tournament play as the Russians defeated Spain, followed by a less thrilling but equally compelling victory for Croatia over Denmark. Both matches ended 1-1 before penalties.

 

The buzz about the Spanish defeat stems from their nearly immaculate pass completion record (~90%) in a record setting passing game: over 1100 passes, the most since records began on such things in 1966. In 2010, La Roja were setting the trend with their possession play, tiki taka was all the rage, and not only could teams not win the ball from the Spaniards, but they were helpless to watch as they were picked apart in their defensive third. Spain won that World Cup as well as a pair of  European Championships two years on either side, paving the way for a brand of footballing geniuses like Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and anyone else who could move in one-touch triangles up and down the pitch.

 

Stubborn, hard-nosed, and sometimes brutish, the Russians were happy to sit eight back today as Spain zipped the ball around in front of them, a final homage to the days when possession was king, and a fitting send-off for its prince in Iniesta, who has just announced his retirement from international football. Today, and this cup in particular, the game is haunched in the counter-attack as sides favor tactics over tiny technique, willing to sit organized behind the ball as they wait for an errant pass or a well-timed challenge to spring forward at breakneck speed.

 

Russia, the dark horse that nobody saw coming but Putin himself, will have some elements of the counter in their favor, as well as a suitable hold-up forward in Denis Cherysev, but will likely be exposed as they face stronger, faster squads later in this tournament.

 Iniesta bids farewell to his fans upon defeat.

 

For the second game of the day, 428 kilometers away at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Croatia were suiting up to face another team that wasn't expected to make a deep run in the tournament in Denmark, who advanced alongside the French. But the Danes gave the Croats a hell of a run in a sometimes-sleepy, cramp-filled match that was always a blip away from sparking to life. The two goals came early, within the first five minutes, before it settled into a chess match between sides that weren't willing to throw caution to the wind and commit forward.

 

The final minutes of extra time included a penalty kick for the Croats, and while there are few players in the world preferred at the spot to Luka Modric, tired legs and nerves saw him dump one into the safe arms of Kasper Schmeichel. It was the 28th penalty of the tournament (breaking a 28 year old record) and the 8th save (also a record), and while Schmeichel stood tall for one of the tallest (and youngest) teams in the tournament, saving twice in the penalty shootout as well, it was the cool-headed Barcelona standout Ivan Rakitic who sealed it for Croatia as the fifth shooter.

 

The Blazers, Vatrenia in Croatian, were favored heavily on their side of the bracket, especially after a 3-0 stifling of Argentina in the group stage, but their predictable movement, even after several days of rest, and lack of invention in the top third will leave them with much to think about as they gear up to face an old rival in Russia for the quarters, and while relations have warmed between the two Eastern European nations in recent years, it is sure that neither side will take for granted the position they are in to advance to the semis.

 Schmeichel's hat-trick of saves not enough to advance Denmark.

 

All in a day's work, and while lacking the luster of Saturday's thrilling knockout matches, yet another unique set of storylines grows for the upcoming games.

 

Mexico face Brazil tomorrow morning (expect fireworks), followed by Belgium and Japan (expect goals).

 

 

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