It’s the 24th day of the 2018 World Cup, and you’d have got good odds at the start on the hosts outlasting world champions Germany, European champions Portugal, Spain, Argentina, and Brazil. But unlike Thomas Müller, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Neymar, Igor Akinfeev and his team-mates are – like Harry Kane, Harry Maguire, Dele Alli et al! – still standing, and here we all are.
Russia are bidding to reach the semi-finals for only the second time in their history. Their only previous visit to the last four came in 1966 when, competing as the Soviet Union, they saw off one of the great Hungary sides in the quarters. They smothered and outfought Ferenc Bene, Flórián Albert and János Farkas; Igor Chislenko and Valeriy Porkujan scored the goals; the legendary Lev Yashin made a couple of decisive saves. The USSR won 2-1, and went on to finish fourth, losing to West Germany in the semis and Portugal in the third-place play-off.
Their opponents today, Croatia, are also looking to make the last four for the second time. The first came early in the independent country’s history, at France 98, when they saw off an ageing Germany 3-0 in the quarters. As the World Cup said goodbye to Jürgen Klinsmann and Lothar Matthäus, it also celebrated Croatia’s golden generation: Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki, all that. Šuker gave them the lead in the resulting semi against France, but Lilian Thuram had other ideas. The Croats settled for third spot, beating the Dutch in the play-off.
On paper, you’d have to fancy a Croatia team boasting Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić to progress tonight. But then Denis Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin haven’t been too shabby themselves, and at this tournament you just never know. Both sides took turns to impress during the group stage, Russia swatting aside Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Croatia seeing off Argentina in style. Both were a bit more functional in the second round, grinding out wins on penalty kicks over Spain and Denmark respectively. Croatia will be hoping to rediscover some of their early sass; Russia are expected to set their stall out for another defensive masterclass. So this could be a fascinating battle. And the prize on offer is huge: a Moscow semi-final on Wednesday against Gareth Southgate’s increasingly confident England in this wonderfully open World Cup! It’s on!
Kick off: 7pm BST, 9pm at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi.