England the biggest winners as exhausted Croatia edge out raucous Russia

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A second penalty shootout win sent Zlatko Dalic's side into the World Cup semi-finals, but the Three Lions will be licking their lips

Croatia's World Cup clash with Russia was one of those truly special games that produced more than one set of winners.

Obviously, there was Zlatko Dalic's players, who realised their dream of emulating the heroes of the 1998 World Cup in France by triumphing 4-3 on penalties to progress to the last four.

But there was also the host nation's incredible fans, who generated the most remarkable atmosphere of the tournament to date, so nearly inspiring their side to another upset win.

And then there was England, who will face an exhausted and perhaps injury-ravaged Croatia in the semi-finals in Moscow on Wednesday. 

Luka Modric & Co. may not be the opponents that Gareth Southgate would have been hoping to meet at the Luzhniki Stadium but extra-time and penalties was undoubtedly his ideal outcome for the game at the Fisht Stadium.

Indeed, by the end, Sime Vrsaljko had been forced off injured, Danijel Subasic was nursing an apparent hamstring injury, while Mario Mandzukic looked out on his feet.

He wasn't alone. This was a mentally and physically draining night of knockout football in balmy conditions in Sochi; it was exhausting just to watch. Yet also truly awesome; stirring, from start to finish.

The rendition of the Russian anthem before kick-off was rousing; the hosts' start to the game was even more impressive, though.

Each and every player clad in red threw themselves into tackles right from the first whistle. Croatia were rattled, and a tad enraged. At one point, Ivan Rakitic asked the referee Sandro Ricci how many times he had to be kicked before he would be awarded a foul.

This was no brutal assault, though. Russia were the better side in the opening half hour. They had little possession but plenty of penetration.

Indeed, while their plan may have been crude, it was undeniably effective: get the ball forward to Artem Dzyuba as quickly as possible; then take it from there.

It earned them a deserved opening goal. Denis Cheryshev, one of the stories of the tournament, picked up the ball in midfield before driving forward.

He exchanged passes with Dzyuba before bending the ball into top corner of the Croatia goal. As one-twos go, it was arguably even more stunning than the Luis Suarez-Edinson Cavani combo at this very stadium just a week before.

At that stage, Croatia were lost, with Modric anonymous, Rakitic forced to play far too deep because of the omission of Marcelo Brozovic, and Mandzukic isolated, slow and cumbersome up front.

With only Ante Rebic carrying any kind of attacking threat, the favourites were in real danger of being swept away by a wave of Russian intensity and industry. 

However, out of nothing, they conjured an equaliser, with Ivan Perisic releasing Mandzukic, who crossed for Andrej Kramaric to head home. It was Croatia's first shot on target.

Domagoj Vida Croatia Russia World Cup 2018 070718

They continued to struggle to create openings in the second half, primarily due to their unbalanced midfield, but should have taken the lead on the hour when the ball dropped for Perisic in the area only for the Inter winger to see his low drive strike the inside of the left post.

It was his last contribution, with Dalic belatedly seeing the error of his ways by deciding to introduce Brozovic in an effort to allow Rakitic have a greater influence on proceedings from a more advanced position.

It was Modric who came to the fore, though, the only man whose turn of pace seemed utterly unaffected by the game's gruelling intensity.

Croatia continued to look disjointed in defence, though, and Dzyuba continued to cause havoc every time the ball was launched in his direction. The striker was involved in five of Russia's seven shots before his exit with just over 10 minutes to go.

Even his withdrawal didn't dampen the spirits of a raucous home crowd. On the contrary, in the final 10 minutes of normal time, the optimism, the belief, well and truly returned.

Their hopes were lifted further by the sight of Croatia's goalkeeper, Subasic, the shootout hero against Denmark, receiving intensive treatment on an apparent hamstring strain before the start of extra-time.

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Subasic battled on, though, and so did Croatia. Domagoj Vida headed them into the lead in the first half of extra time only to see Mario Fernandes respond in kind to force penalties.

At that stage, Croatia looked utterly spent, emotionally and physically, yet they roused themselves to win the shootout, thanks to a combination of Subasic, Fernandes' horrible strike, good fortune for Modric and another seemingly nerveless spot-kick from Rakitic.

As a result, it is Croatia - not Russia - who march on to Moscow. A fitter and fresher England await, though. Perhaps they were the biggest winners of all on Saturday night!

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