Modric & Croatia's Golden Generation must make World Cup final after Denmark scare

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The Real Madrid midfielder saw a penalty saved in extra time, but his side prevailed in a shootout and a favourable draw means they are big contenders

The World Cup is opening up for Croatia. The team coached by Zlatko Dalic were not really thought of as among the favourites to win this tournament, but their path to the final now looks a real possibility.

Group stage wins over Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland saw the Croats come through their sector in top spot and, along with Uruguay and Belgium, as one of just three teams to win all of their first-round matches.

Croatia, previously a part of the former Yugoslavia, only made their World Cup debut in 1998 and that team memorably went all the way to the semi-finals in France before losing to the hosts and eventual winners.

"We can do better than the 1998 team, but let's see," Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren said after the 3-0 victory over Argentina in the group stages. "I think we have better players than that team."

And, although the 1998 side featured the likes of Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki, the current crop boasts plenty of talent too in Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and more.

"There has been a lot of comparison between those two teams," Inter winger Ivan Perisic said this week. "They did a miracle in France in 1998. I was nine years old watching those games and dreaming about being in a similar situation. Now we are here and we hope to catch them or come close to them. We are ready to do that."

Having produced their best performance in Nizhny Novgorod as they thrashed Argentina 3-0, Dalic's side were back in the same stadium to face Denmark in the last 16 on Sunday night and they found themselves behind – and then level – within the first four minutes.

After some comical defending at both ends and goals from Mathias Jorgensen and Mandzukic, the match became a tense affair with neither side giving much away. Croatia's extra quality in midfield looked likely to win the day, but Denmark defended diligently and also created chances.

Mario Mandzukic Croatia 2018

Croatia won a penalty in the second period of extra time when Ante Rebic was brought down by Jorgensen when clean through, but Kasper Schmeichel saved the spot-kick from Modric and the match went to penalties soon afterwards.

The goalkeepers came out on top in a thrilling shootout , with Danijel Subasic saving three - from Christian Eriksen, Lasse Schoene and Nicolai Jorgensen - and Schmeichel stopping two - from Milan Badelj and Josip Pivaric, while Modric gained a measure of redemption by scoring his spot-kick.

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It was harsh on a Danish side that had fought so superbly, though Croatia would have felt hard done by if they had gone out after what was going to be a clear goal only resulted in a penalty which they subsequently missed in extra time.

The Croats, knocked out in agonising fashion against Portugal in the last 16 of Euro 16, only narrowly escaped a similar fate here, but this time they prevailed and, with Russia in wait in the quarter-finals and one of England, Colombia, Sweden or Switzerland ahead in the last four, there is a real opportunity now for this golden generation to go all the way to the final in Moscow and, who knows, maybe even to the title itself.

The World Cup has had a first-time winner in 1958 (Brazil), 1978 (Argentina) and 1998 (France). Croatia, having edged out Denmark and seen Spain removed from their path, will hope that omen can push them on to success in Russia. And with a favourable route to Moscow, they should better their 1998 team now and make it to the final at least.

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