AL WAKRAH – Croatia is going deep at another World Cup, and the team is taking the long route once again.
Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic saved three penalty kicks in Croatia's 3-1 win over Japan in a shootout on Monday, securing a return to the quarterfinals for the runner-up in the 2018 tournament. The match was tied at 1-1 after extra time.
On its surprising run to the final in Russia four years ago, Croatia needed extra time in each round in the knockout stage — and twice came through a penalty shootout.
“History keeps repeating itself,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said with a smile.
Livakovic was the backup goalkeeper to Danijel Subasic in 2018 but took center stage this time, diving to his left to keep out Japan's first penalty by Takumi Minamino, to his right to block Kaoru Mitoma's effort from the second penalty, and then again to his right to deny Maya Yoshida off the fourth.
That gave Mario Pasalic the chance to put away the clinching penalty. The substitute joined the rest of Croatia’s jubilant players in heading right for Livakovic after hitting the back of the net.
“In Croatia, we do things this way,” Livakovic said. “I continued the tradition.”
The similarities with 2018 do not stop there. Just like in every game in the knockout stage that year, Croatia fell behind to Japan when Daizen Maeda swept in a close-range finish in the 43rd.
Ivan Perisic equalized by meeting Dejan Lovren’s cross from the right with a header into the bottom corner from near the penalty spot in the 57th.
Dalic said his team's ability to recover from losing positions “reflects the Croatian people," with a nod to a psyche the players forged growing up in a country ravaged by war as the former Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s.
“We never give up ... We have been through so much pain and the players have great pride,” Dalic said. “The whole of Croatia is supporting us and this is a way of giving them faith for a better tomorrow.”
While Croatia — also a semifinalist in 1998 — prepares to take on Brazil in the quarterfinals, Japan exits a World Cup in the round of 16 for the fourth time, just like in 2002, 2010 and 2018. The Asian team also lost in a penalty shootout to Paraguay at that stage in 2010.
Asia is still waiting for a second team to advance beyond the last 16, after South Korea on home soil in 2002.
Japan made its mark in Qatar, though, beating Germany and Spain — two of the last three World Cup champions — in huge upsets in the group stage.
“The players showed a new era of Japanese football, I think,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said. "They should use this feeling of being upset and try to go further next time.
“We cannot be superheroes in one go. We have to improve step by step. But Japan is reaching a level where we can play on the world stage.”
The result guarantees at least one more World Cup game for 37-year-old Croatia captain Luka Modric, one of the best midfielders of his generation. The 2018 world player of the year had a quiet game, save for one pass with the outside of his right foot that sent Perisic away for a shot on goal in the first half.
Modric was substituted in the first half of extra time and wasn't part of the shootout.
Dalic never doubted Livakovic in the shootout. “Yesterday during training, we practiced penalty kicks and he really saved many shots,” Dalic said. “So when we started the shootout, I was very confident. He proved to be like Subasic in Russia.” Three of Croatia's four penalty-takers were substitutes.
Since 1998, all of Croatia’s knockout matches at a World Cup or European Championship have gone to extra time except for the 2018 World Cup final loss to France.
With his goal, Perišić became the first Croatia player to score 10 goals at major tournaments.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
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