On Saturday night, Croatia and host nation Russia go head-to-head in the World Cup quarter-finals in Sochi. In reality, I doubt many Russian fans believed that their team would make the last eight on home soil at the start of the tournament. The Russian media certainly did not.
On paper, Croatia have a far more talented squad of players than Russia. The Croatian players play their football in the biggest leagues in Europe, while the majority of Russia’s squad play their football in the Russian Premier League, 21 out of the 23 to be precise.
However, most would have said that Spain’s squad and team were in a different league to Russia in the last-16. The home nation sent the Spaniards packing, albeit via penalty kicks.
Momentum is intangible
Despite the difference in quality between the two sets of players, Russia has that intangible attribute momentum behind them. The opening game 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
Even a 3-0 defeat against Uruguay in their final group game did not seem to dampen the spirit and the momentum the Russians have developed in the last few weeks.
The mood is indeed different from the doom and gloom surrounding the team before the tournament began. There is now a belief amongst the fans that they can go the whole way on home soil and lift the trophy.
The hosts seem to thrive at every World Cup and Russia have been no different. Only South Africa in the last eight World Cups have failed to make it to the knockout stages as hosts.
Croatia slightly complacent against Denmark
Another positive for Russia heading into this clash is that Croatia seemed somewhat complacent against Denmark in the last 16. Despite their undoubted quality, the Eastern European team switched off for at least 20 minutes during the game.
The switch-off nearly proved costly. However, Denmark did not have the attacking talents to break down the Croatia defence. The likes of Artem Dzyuba, Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev, could provide a more significant attacking threat for the hosts.
With the momentum that Russia now has behind them, any poor mental attitude from Croatia may be fatal to their chances of staying in the competition.
Croatia have a history of underachieving on the big stage of late. However, this is likely to be the last World Cup for a generation of players, so they will be highly determined to make it as far as possible.
Croatia favourites to progress
It will come as little surprise that Croatia are favourites to beat Russia at odds of 5/4 to make into the last four of World Cup 2018. However, this World Cup has been one for the underdogs and surprise results.
In truth, I find it very hard to separate, just because of Russia’s momentum and home advantage. The atmosphere will be electric and intimidating for the Croatia players.
How they cope under pressure will determine whether they qualify for the semi-finals of the competition or not. The likes of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic are highly experienced players, though. These players have played at the highest level of European football a long time.
If they keep their nerve and hit top form in this clash, then they should have too much quality for Russia. However, if they do not then the home nation are certainly capable enough of producing a big surprise in this clash.
Can Russia progress past Croatia at World Cup 2018?
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