Hosts Russia lock horns with Croatia on Saturday night in Sochi for a place in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. Mark O'Haire previews the encounter...
"All bar one draw in the World Cup knockout stages since 1994 has concluded either 0-0 or 1-1."
Croatia v Russia
Saturday 7th July, 19:00
Live on BBC/ITV
Croatia yet to command and conquer
Croatia qualified for the quarter-finals via a nerve-shredding penalty shootout against Denmark last Sunday night as goalkeeper Danijel Subasic became only the second stopper in World Cup history to save three spot-kicks in a shootout.
Ivan Rakitic slotted home the decisive 10th kick but there was no doubt who the hero of the hour was for the Balkan outfit. The Blazers were heavily fancied to progress pre-match, but after an eventful opening five minutes where the two nations shared scrappy goals, a largely disappointing tie played out.
That was until a stunningly dramatic finale in extra-time. Ante Rebic was hauled down with the goal at his mercy and Luka Modric saw his subsequent match-winning penalty attempt saved. Modric's miss meant spot-kicks was required to split the sides where Rakitic and Subasic picked up the plaudits.
However, head coach Zlatko Dalic might be tempted to make changes for Saturday night's encounter after a lacklustre performance. Croatia's passing was off, they seemed to lack energy and ambition - and their ability to unpick a well-drilled opposition was limited.
Russia exceed expectations
Hosts Russia pulled off one of the biggest shock of the World Cup as they beat 2010 champions Spain to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in 48 years. After extra-time ended with the score locked at 1-1, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev was the Sbornaya's penalty hero, to spark scenes of delirious celebration in Moscow.
Stanislav Cherchesov's side - the lowest ranked team in the competition - were seen as no-hopers by most observers when the tournament began, when even getting out of their group for the first time since the end of the Soviet era had been seen as beyond them.
And after falling behind early on following veteran Sergei Ignashevich's error, supporters may have feared the worse. However, the hosts were rarely threatened despite ceding possession to the Spanish and Artem Dzyuba's penalty restored parity before half-time. Russia's defensive masterclass continued thereafter and the Sbornaya deservedly took the game to spot-kicks.
Whether Russia will approach this tie with 10 men behind the ball remains to be seen but Cherchesov could be forced into a couple of changes. Yuri Zhirkov is almost certain to miss out with Fyodor Kudryashov likely to step in at left-back, while Alan Dzagoev could feature having returned to full training.
Croatia have been chalked up as [2.28] favourites and that's understandable considering the quality at their disposal. The Blazers are bidding to reach the last-eight for the first time since their memorable run to the semi-finals in 1998.
Nevertheless, the Blazers haven't quite clicked at the competition thus far. Six of their nine shots on-target have resulted in goals and performance data metrics also frown upon suggestions that Croatia have been amongst the leading contenders this summer.
Russia [4.1] have produced a similarly clinical suit with the Sbornaya scoring nine goals from only 11 on-target attempts. The hosts' Expected Goals figures are also unremarkable with Stanislav Cherchesov's men overperforming in both boxes thus far.
Considering eight (40%) of the past 20 World Cup quarter-finals during a 32-team tournament have ended all-square, plus the fact both sides went the distance in the Last 16, it might be worth backing a repeat with the stalemate [3.15] the most attractive punt.
Traditionally, as the World Cup progresses towards the showpiece final, the pressure increases and goals per-game average decreases. Across the past five tournaments, 12/20 (60%) encounters have featured Under 2.5 Goals [1.54] and 7/20 (35%) saw both sides score.
Neither nation are yet to concede a goal from open play so another low-scoring showdown could be on the cards in Sochi. With Under 2.5 Goals too short to support as a standalone selection, but with a draw already recommended, we can combine the two bets to back Draw and Under 2.5 Goals at 23/10.
Croatia have seen nine of their last 25 matches since the start of qualification produce goals at both ends, while Russia have followed suit in three of their last five major tournament matches. What's more, all bar one draw in the World Cup knockout stages since 1994 has concluded either 0-0 or 1-1.
Mark's World Cup Profit/Loss
Staked: 108.00 pts
Returned: 8.90 pts
Key Opta Stats for Russia v Croatia
Russia and Croatia have faced three times previously, with two of those ending goalless in qualifiers for Euro 2008; Croatia won the other meeting in November 2015, a 3-1 victory in a friendly in Rostov, with Mario Mandzukic scoring Croatia’s third goal.
Russia have reached the quarter-final of the World Cup for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union – as the USSR, they reached the quarter-final in four consecutive World Cups between 1958 and 1970.
Croatia won their only other World Cup quarter-final, defeating Germany in 1998 on their way to that year’s semi-finals, when they were eliminated.
The last five host nations to feature in a World Cup quarter-final have all progressed to the semi-final (Italy 1990, France 1998, South Korea 2002, Germany 2006 and Brazil 2014).
Croatia have scored as many goals in four matches at this year’s World Cup (8) as they did in six games in their previous two World Cup appearances in 2006 and 2014 combined.
Russia had 10 shots on target in their first two 2018 World Cup games – they have managed just two in their last two matches, with one of those a penalty (Artem Dzyuba v Spain).
After keeping clean sheets in both of their opening games at this World Cup, Croatia have conceded once in each of their last two matches; they haven’t conceded a goal in three consecutive matches at the same World Cup tournament since 2002, when they failed to keep a clean sheet in all three of their matches.
Croatia have only lost one of their seven World Cup matches against fellow European opposition (W5 D1), while Russia have never beaten a European team at the World Cup (D1 L3), although they did eliminate Spain on penalties in the Last 16 of this tournament after a 1-1 draw.
10 of Croatia’s last 12 World Cup goals have come in the second halves of their games.
Mario Mandzukic scored his third World Cup goal for Croatia against Denmark in the last round – only Davor Suker (6) has scored more for them at the World Cup.
Artem Dzyuba has been directly involved in four of Russia’s last seven goals at the 2018 World Cup (three goals, one assist), scoring both of their last two.
Croatia have faced the host nation at the World Cup twice previously, losing both matches against France in 1998 (1-2 in semi-final) and Brazil in 2014 (1-3 in group stage).