AL WAKRAH, Qatar — Sooner or later, we were going to see one. A penalty shootout, the most brutal, exciting, painful, joyous, triumphant, devastating, and — more than anything — sudden slice of drama that soccer has to offer.
On this night, a high-quality contest between two outstanding teams came down to this, a series of kicks from the spot. A lottery, as it is so often called. There is skill to it, of course. And some luck.
Croatia hit the jackpot and is moving on to the quarterfinals. Japan went bust, and is heading out of the tournament after providing so much enjoyment and a pair of magnificent upsets against Germany and Spain.
Dominik Livaković was the hero for Croatia as he stopped three Japanese shots in the shootout. Croatia won on the penalty shootout.
In the shootout, goalkeeper Dominik Livaković made three critical saves as Croatia prevailed 3-1, with Mario Pasalic slotting home the clinching kick.
Livakovic became the third goalkeeper to make three saves in a single World Cup penalty shootout after Portugal’s Ricardo in 2006 (vs. England) and Croatia’s Danijel Subasic (vs. Denmark in 2018).
Japan, without question, had been one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the entire tournament.
Few gave Japan a chance of advancing from a group that included 2010 champion Spain and 2014 victor Germany. But Japan went one better than that, topping the group after beating both those esteemed rivals.
The Samurai Blue‘s progress at this World Cup is, frankly speaking, the kind of advancement United States fans would love to see from the men’s national team, fostering a sense of truly belonging at elite world level instead of striving to get to that point.
Mario Pasalic’s kick wins it!
Mario Pasalic scores the game-winning PK in the shootout to clinch a win for Croatia over Japan.
Japan was the better team for most of the first hour and was worthy of its 1-0 halftime lead. On 43 minutes, Ritsu Doan clipped in a superb ball that bounced off two players and landed perfectly for Daizen Maeda, who calmly finished from six yards out.
Croatia’s equalizer came against the run of play, but it was a finish of the highest quality from an outstanding player. Ivan Perisic was so instrumental in helping Croatia reach the final four years ago, and his header of rare power was perfectly placed after 55 minutes, angled beyond the reach of Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda.
Both teams had further chances, but this one had an inevitable feel about — perhaps explained by the statistic that six of Croatia’s previous World Cup and European Championships knockout round games had gone to extra time.
During the additional period, Japan’s danger on the break was clear and present.
Kaoru Mitoma, such a clutch performer throughout the event, embarked upon a run that took him half the length of the pitch before his powerful drive was pushed over by Livakovic.
Luka Modric was subbed off for Croatia, his 37-year-old legs not springy enough for 120 minutes these days.
Ivan Perisic scores for Croatia
Croatia’s Ivan Perisic evens the game in the 55th minute.
So often, natural caution wins the day during extra time, with penalty kicks seemingly a magnetic outcome. Only once during the 2018 tournament was a game won via a goal in the additional period — when Croatia got past England in the semifinal.
With the final kick of extra time, Lovro Majer had one of the night’s best opportunities, but slashed his strike just wide of Gonda’s post.
And so, here, it would go to the cruel, exhilarating crucible of the spot. Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia was widely dismissed heading into the World Cup, supposedly too old and no longer consistent enough.
But Croatia is battle-tested and showed here it doesn’t always need to be at its best to advance. And advance Croatia will, quarterfinalists once more and a genuine contender.