Preview: Russia vs Croatia

World Cup hosts Russia and their quarter-final opponents Croatia will both be targeting rare semi-final appearances when they clash in Sochi on Saturday.

2018 World Cup
Date: 7 July 2018
Venue: Olimpiyskiy Stadion Fisht
Referee: Sandro Ricci
Assistants: Emerson de Carvalho, Marcelo Van Gasse

Previous encounter:
Russia 1-3 Croatia 17/11/15 (Friendly)
Russia goalscorers: F. Smolov (14′)
Croatia goalscorers: N. Kalinic (57′), M. Brozovic (60′), M. Mandzukic (82′)

Players to watch:
Russia will be hoping midfielder Denis Cheryshev will be back to full fitness for the clash to continue his fine run of form at the tournament. The 27-year-old has impressed for Russia thus far, scoring three goals and netting a crucial penalty in the shootout against Spain in the last 16.

Croatia’s most influential player at the World Cup has been Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric. The 32-year-old has been pulling the strings for Croatia in midfield and has contributed with two important goals. He missed what could have been a match-winning penalty against Denmark, but showed character to step up and score in the eventual shootout that put his country through to the quarter-finals.

Team form and manager quotes:
Russia have confounded their critics at the World Cup this year. Many thought that the hosts would finish third in Group A, behind Uruguay and Egypt, but they smashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 before a 3-1 win over the Pharaohs to secure their spot in the knockout stages.

Spain were expected to comfortably beat Russia in the last 16, but yet again the hosts over-achieved to hold the 2010 World Cup champions to a 1-1 draw before showing great spirit to beat them on penalties.

“We have our goals and missions. We have a goal before tomorrow’s match. We have to play and achieve results. We are not daydreaming,” Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov said.

“I’m telling you I’m trying not to watch TV or read newspapers. Concentrate on the job. Same for the players. It’s a good story to remind ourselves of the match against Spain. But now we have to look forward. It’s a different game. It’s a different level.

“We are not the people to be euphoric. Journalists can be. Spain were one of the best teams. Now anyone can go home and we have to perform from the start.”

Meanwhile, Croatia have enjoyed a nearly perfect World Cup campaign. They beat Nigeria 2-0, thrashed Argentina 3-0, and ground out a 2-1 win over Iceland to clinch first place in Group D.

Their last-16 fixture was less convincing as they played out a 1-1 draw with a tenacious Denmark side, to force the game into extra-time and eventually penalties. Despite some wonderful saves from Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and a few poor spot-kicks from Croatia, they managed to pull off a win and are now eyeing their first World Cup semi-final since 1998.

Croatia defender Dejan Lovren, who turned 29 this week, said: “I have been through a lot of ups and downs, I was most upset that I missed EURO 2016 in France. I hope I have made that up to my teammates and that we can create a nice story from this World Cup.

“Every side can surprise us, but I think we have enough experience and quality that we can cope with any team. It will be tough, both us and Russia have big motives.”

Team news:
Russia may have Denis Cheryshev back in their starting lineup after he started on the bench against Spain, while Alan Dzagoev could be fit again after picking up an injury in the opening game of the World Cup.

Croatia should field an unchanged lineup against the hosts, with Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric the first names on the team sheet.