Free to Read: My 3 Thoughts on Brazil-Croatia
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Croatia advanced to the World Cup semifinals past Brazil in a jaw-dropping game decided by penalty kicks (4-2) after a 1-1 tie in which the Croatians equalized late in extra-time after Neymar had put Brazil ahead earlier in the extra stanza. Here are my three thoughts on the game:
• Croatia’s steel is absolutely legendary. This game appeared over after Neymar’s brilliant 106th-minute goal finally broke through for Brazil, which had 11 shots on goal compared to Croatia’s one. But that one shot on frame was a beauty. In the 117th minute, Bruno Petkovic’s shot took a deflection off Marquinhos and beat Brazilian keeper Alisson to silence the celebrating Brazilian fans and give Croatia a lifeline. Croatia is unstoppable when it comes to penalty shootouts—this is the second straight World Cup in which it has won two knockout games on penalties—and goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic got things started off right by saving Brazil’s first spot kick from Rodrygo. The Croatians were uncanny in converting all four of their penalties, which kept the pressure on Brazil dialed to the max until Marquinhos cracked in Round 4 and hit his kick off the post to give Croatia the spot in the semifinals. Why Neymar didn’t take one of Brazil’s first four kicks is beyond me. You shouldn’t be “saving” him for Round 5 if that round never comes, and it didn’t. But let’s hear it for Croatia. This tiny country of 4 million people punches above its weight unlike any other soccer nation. It has eliminated tournament favorite Brazil (population: 216 million) to reach Croatia’s second straight World Cup semifinal appearance (and third going back to 1998). Incredible.
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• Going out in the quarterfinals is catastrophic for Brazil. This was viewed as a defining World Cup for the Brazilians heading into the tournament. They were the favorite to win it. They hadn’t won in 20 years, since 2002. And during that time the gap had grown wider between the top European teams and the rest of the world (including Brazil and Argentina). This World Cup was the chance for Brazil, which had gone out to European teams in four straight World Cups, to close that gap. But in the end, the Brazilians couldn’t do it, and they went out to a European team for the fifth straight time. Neymar’s phenomenal goal, which came after not one but two wall passes, appeared to make the difference and serve as a career-defining moment for the Brazilian No. 10. It was a classic Brazilian scoring sequence, and it tied Neymar with Pelé for the most international goals scored by a Brazilian man. But Brazil couldn’t kill the game after that, and those players will regret that for the rest of their careers. The fact is that Brazil should have capitalized more on its chances in a game that didn’t need to even go to extra time. Brazil’s expected goals advantage was 2.63 to 0.66. What a way to go out.
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• This side of the bracket is wide-open now. Of the four teams on this side of the bracket, Brazil was the on-paper favorite to reach the final ahead of Croatia, Argentina and the Netherlands. A lot of people here were already foreseeing a Brazil-France final. And Croatia? They looked like they might go out against Japan, much less Brazil, and now, two penalty shootout wins later, they’re back in the World Cup Final Four. Can they make it to another improbable final? Why not? No matter whether the opponent is the Dutch or Argentina, Croatia has shown time and again that it can go toe to toe with any team in the World Cup. It has shown twice in this tournament’s knockout rounds that it can come from behind to force penalties, and then slam the door during the shootout itself. I’ll admit it. I thought Croatia was too old heading into this tournament. But I was wrong. Luka Modric keeps showing at 37 that he has the energy to go all the way in these games, and the fight these Croatians show is legendary. I can’t tell you how much I admire them.
What are your thoughts? You can join the discussion in the comments below.