Respect Russia | Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 09, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:18 AM, July 09, 2018

Respect Russia

Heartbreak for hosts, but Russians were heroes. 

Ranked 70th in the world and playing in this World Cup by virtue of being the host nation, Russia were taken on neither seriously nor respectfully by rivals and pundits. But what a gallant run the elderly Russian players had in this tournament.

And their show on Saturday night against a more fancied Croatia was thoroughly absorbing and highly unpredictable!

The much-maligned team of Stanislav Cherchesov came tantalisingly close to the semifinals only to be denied on penalties (3-4) after they fought neck and neck to press 1-1 at the end of the regulation 90 minutes and 2-2 at the end of 30 minutes of extra time. There were tears on the pitch and in the stands after Ivan Rakitic converted the winning spot-kick to send Croatia through and brought an end to the Russian fairytale.

Earlier, the two teams crossed the round of 16 hurdles on penalties, with Croatia dismissing Denmark and Russia edging out France. But this was the time for Croatia to end Ruassia's spot-kick streak.

Defender Mario Fernandes, the Brazilian-turned-Russian through a presidential decree ahead of the World Cup, was both the hero and villain for his adopted country when he levelled the score 2-2 only five minutes from the end of extra time with a brilliant glancing header, but missed the crucial spot-kick afterwards.

For Croatia, it will be the first ever qualification into the July 12 semifinal, where they will face England, the winners in Saturday's quarterfinal match against Sweden.  

England had to beat the odds stacked against them and advance to the semifinals after 28 long years. They were found to be quite wobbly in the knockout phase of the World Cup for a decade. Their last win came in the quarterfinals against Ecuador in 2006.

This England side look very different from the past. Those were older, more experienced and celebrity-obsessed. These are younger, hungrier and goal-obsessed.

Gareth Southgate's team is not only the second-youngest in Russia but also the least experienced. He shifted plenty of their old guard out of the team in the last couple of tournaments and gave a fresh batch of hot prospects a chance to make their mark. These young footballers are indeed making their mark by playing their hearts out and steering the ship in attack and defence.

England seemed to have mustered well the art of scoring goals from set-pieces. Of the nine goals that England scored, six have come from set-pieces. They despatched Sweden 2-0 through set-piece goals, with Harry Maguire and Dele Alli heading home a corner and a cross.

Dele Alli became the second youngest player to score a World Cup goal for England, behind Michael Owen, and his famous goal against Argentina in 1998.

Is it really happening this time for England after all these years since 1966, when they won the World Cup for the first and only time?

Southgate & Co are only two matches away. And anything can happen.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star

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