Russia, buoyed by their surprise last 16 win over Spain, will hope to advance into a World Cup semi-final as they prepare for an all-European clash with Croatia.

Sochi is the venue and it’s sure to be a cracking atmosphere but it is still the Croats who head into Saturday’s game as favourites to send the host nation packing.

Both sides needed penalty shoot-outs to reach this stage. Croatia confirmed their reputation as a side that can blow hot and cold with a less impressive performance in their last 16 game with Denmark.

Having hammered Argentina in a group which they topped, they made hard work of beating the Danes with a 3-2 shootout win ultimately sealing their progress.

Croatia’s record in knockout football has not been good in recent years so that will be a huge weight off their shoulders although the same could be said of Russia, whose World Cup record is dismal since the fall of the Soviet Union.

They’d not made it out of the group in any of their previous three appearances as Russia but victory over Spain on penalties last weekend gives them a chance to make a bit more history here.

They were naturally very cautious against the Spanish, appearing to settle for penalties. Here though, they will sense the gulf in quality is less and will fancy they can cause problems for a Croatian defence, which hasn’t been given a really tough examination yet but is perhaps a bit vulnerable.

We should see a bolder Russia in Sochi and they may include Denis Cheryshev from the start. He has provided a bit of attacking spark but Artem Dzyuba has also been a bit of a revelation up front, with the target-man having netted in three of his team’s four matches at this tournament.

With the quality that Croatia have in midfield, they should be able to create chances and they are on paper the stronger side.

However history teaches us that you can never rule out the host nation at a World Cup and this is likely to be a pretty even contest.

This tournament has already seen a record number of penalties awarded and both these sides were awarded penalties in the last round before advancing on spot-kicks.

Luka Modric missed for Croatia but was big enough to step up again minutes later in the shoot-out and convert so he should hold onto penalty duties.

Modric netted in two of Croatia’s three group games too and given the eventful tournament he is having in front of goal, the Real Madrid star could easily increase his tally for his country.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019
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