Dominik Livaković was the hero for Croatia as his three penalty saves ensured his nation went to the quarter-finals, at the expense of Japan.
Japan made two changes from their win over Spain, with Takehiro Tomiyasu in for Ko Itakura and Wataru Endo in for Ao Tanaka.
Croatia, meanwhile, also made two changes with Borna Barišić in for Borna Sosa and Bruno Petković in for Marko Livaja.
Japan had the first chance of the half early at the Al Janoub Stadium, as Endo launched a ball into the box. Shojo Taniguchi had a great opportunity to header the ball home, but was unable to get the correct contact on it as it flew past the left-hand upright.
The Samurai Blue applied the pressure early, as Daizen Maeda chased down Livaković on the ball, forcing the goalkeeper to clear the ball off the Japanese attacker for a goal kick.
However, a mistake from Tomiyasu in the 8th minute allowed Ivan Perišić through on goal, but his shot was saved by Shuichi Gonda. Then, a goal-mouth scramble saw Andrej Kramarić attempt a shot before the ball eventually end up in the Japanese goalkeeper’s hands.
Japan fired back as Junya Ito got on the ball and played a dangerous ball across the six-yard box, but neither Maeda or Yuto Nagatomo could get on the end of it.
Nagatomo and Maeda were involved again, as the former sent a cross in for the latter, but Maeda was just unable to get any contact on the ball.
Japan had the better of the match in the opening exchanges of the first half, as they controlled the midfield in defence and attack and were able to put in many high quality crosses. They didn’t allow Croatia’s midfield time or space on the ball to nullify their impact.
Croatia had their best passage of play near the half-hour mark, as Barišić whipped a ball into the box. The ball was headed on by Perišić for Kramarić, who was just unable to reach the ball as it flew past him.
Japan employed patience after the half-hour mark, as their midfield looked to play their way through the Croatian midfield and defence. The play almost worked before a miscommunication saw the Samurai Blue lose the ball, but it was encouraging signs of how they could control the match.
Japan were so close to breaking the deadlock just five minutes from half-time, as they ran on a fast break. Maeda played the ball off to Endo on the edge of the 18-yard box who slid the ball through for Daichi Kamada to get in behind the Croatian defence.
However, the Eintracht Frankfurt man was unable to keep his shot down as his attempt flew wide. Despite that, Japan’s counter attacking threat was evident.
The breakthrough was coming though and arrived just two minutes out from the end of regulation time in the first half.
From a corner, Ritsu Doan was able to create a good angle for a cross outside the box. The Japanese captain, Maya Yoshida, was able to get a foot on the delivery, which rebounded and found Maeda, who had created space for himself in the box.
The Celtic man had the simple job of slotting the ball home on his left foot, as Japan took the lead and a giant step towards reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time.
That’s how the score remained at half-time, as Japan took a 1-0 lead over Croatia into the break.
Kamada started the second half strong for Japan, as he had a strike from outside the box which kept rising over the crossbar.
However, after some patient build-up play from Croatia, centre-half Dejan Lovren whipped a cross into the box on his right foot. It landed directly on the head of the oncoming Ivan Perišić, who powered his header from the left-side inside the box into the bottom-right corner of the goal to score.
That was an important goal for Perišić, personally, and for Croatian football, as it meant he passed the great Davor Šuker with 10 major tournament goals for Croatia.
That precision got Croatia back in the match, as the score was 1-1 with 35 minutes to play.
Japan nearly stuck back straight away with a goal, as Endo took on a strike from range. It dipped late as Livaković made an important save.
Doan had a tame effort saved at the hour mark, as Japan looked to withhold a revitalised Croatian side.
Revitalised they were, as Luka Modrić hit a powerful volley towards goal, which brought out a top-class save from Gonda in the Japanese goal.
A cross was played towards Ante Budimir, who had a chance to put Croatia in front with his first touch of the match off the bench. However, his header bounced wide of the right-hand post.
Perišić used his pace well on the counter as Croatia looked to end the match the stronger of the two sides.
Barišić would have had a golden chance to strike the ball sweetly inside the box from a corner, but he was denied the chance by a last-ditch tackle by Doan.
Both sides were fighting to find any edge and advantage they could in the contest.
However, with tired legs from both sides, substitutes looked to be the key to ensure both sides could hold on.
The tension built as the match entered the final 10 minutes.
Six of the last seven matches Croatia had played in major tournaments had gone to extra-time, so they looked more well equipped in that scenario, hypothetically.
Croatia looked to utilise their height advantage as Mario Pašalić also had a header that flew wide of the post.
However, neither team could be separated at the end of the 90 minutes. This was the first match to head to extra-time at this World Cup.
Croatia entered extra-time with the momentum as both sides looked to break the 1-1 scoreline.
Modrić was substituted eight minutes into extra-time in his final World Cup in an unusual move, as Croatia looked to freshen up the midfield.
Mateo Kovačić was also taken off, as Nikola Vlašić and Lovro Majer came on in that Croatian midfield.
A minute before half-time in extra-time, substitute Kaoru Mitoma made a driving run through the Croatian midfield and fired a shot on goal. His shot was aimed straight at the goalkeeper, however, who had strong hands.
Both teams made a plethora of changes and they both looked to hold on until the end of extra-time, or find a winner.
Livaja and Mislav Oršić came on in Croatia’s attack for Budimir and Perišić, while Japan took off Morita for Tanaka.
The substitutes also became crucial as the coaches made their changes for potential penalty takers if the match got to that stage, as well as just for fresh legs.
Both sides looked to slow the match down due to the intensity of the tournament as both looked to lob balls into the box.
Croatia dominated the second half of extra-time, as Majer had the final chance of the match. He fired an effort on goal, but his effort slid past the left-hand upright.
The match went the distance, as both sides prepared for a penalty shootout to determine who would make the quarter finals of the World Cup.
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With the experienced players off for both sides, it was truly a contest of who could hold their nerve.
Neither goalkeeper had saved a penalty before this match as they stepped up to attempt to send their countries through.
The penalties were taken at the end where the Japanese fans were in the crowd.
This was Japan’s first World Cup penalty shootout since 2010, while Croatia last went to penalties in the 2018 edition, where they progressed at Denmark’s expense into the final eight.
Substitute Takumi Minamino was first up for Japan. The penalty wasn’t shot into the corner, as Livaković made a correct guess by diving to his left and saved the first penalty.
Vlašić was first up for Croatia. He had more power behind his strike, as he struck it into the back of the net, to the goalkeeper’s right. Advantage Croatia.
Japan sent in Mitoma to take their second penalty. He also had a tame effort read by Livaković, this time to the goalkeeper’s right, as the 6’2 shot-stopper saved back-to-back penalties.
Substitute Marcelo Brozović was up next for Croatia. He calmly slotted his penalty down the middle of the goal, as Croatia took a 2-0 lead in the shootout.
Substiture Takuma Asano coolly slotted his penalty kick away to the goalkeeper’s left for Japan as they looked to stay in the contest.
Livaja stepped up next for Croatia, also after he came off the bench. Goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda guessed the right way, but a save wasn’t needed, as the ball struck the left-hand post and missed.
Japan had a small avenue back into the shootout as the experienced Yoshida stepped up for penalty number four. His shot also lacked any real power, as Livaković made a record-equaling third save in the shootout after he dived to his right.
Pašalić stepped up for Croatia, knowing if he scored, his nation would go through to the final eight of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. He sent Gonda the wrong way as he slotted his penalty into the left-hand side of the goal.
Croatia won the match 3-1 over Japan on penalties to secure their spot in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Despite not having the most fluent match, the Croatians held their nerve to reach the next round.
With their experienced players subbed off the field, the next group of Croatians stepped up and made their time count in the shootout. They stayed in the match after going down and found a way to secure their passage through.
It was a gutsy effort from Japan, who fell in the end to a Croatian side who’s experience and calmness in penalty shootouts showed.
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