World Cup QF: Russia's confidence sky-high for Croatia match
European side hasn't advanced to the semis since 1966
It doesn't matter that few Russian fans ever expected the hosts to reach the World Cup quarterfinals, midfielder Alexander Golovin is already thinking about the final.
The creative breakout star for Russia never doubted the team would perform well — long before it beat Spain on penalties in the round of 16, setting up a matchup with Croatia in Sochi on Saturday.
"We knew that everything was possible," he said Wednesday. "Even before the beginning of the tournament we all understood that we could reach the final, we seriously counted on this and see this as the real state of things for us now."
Croatia also reached the quarterfinals on penalties after overcoming a spirited Denmark team, and is now aiming to match its best-ever World Cup: it made the semifinals in 1998.
Defender Domagoj Vida believes Croatia can take full advantage of being on what's widely considered the easier side of the bracket.
"Now we are in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, which is a big success for us," he said. "But our goals are higher. God willing, we would like to lift the World Cup trophy and that's why we are here."
The winner will play either England or Sweden in the semifinals.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic was Croatia's star in the round of 16 with three saves in the shootout. He's predicting Russia will repeat its defensive style from the Spain game, when Spain had possession of the ball 75 percent of the game but couldn't break through Russia's deep and dedicated defense.
"I expect a defensive-minded Russia," Subasic said. "We expect a tough match, as all the others."
Golovin predicts Croatia will offer Russia more opportunities to score because of its style, compared to Spain's endless passing.
"They don't have the aim of controlling the ball during the whole match. Their goal is to reach a result," Golovin said. "And in this sense it's easier to play with such a team, in my opinion."
Zeroes to heroes
Russia is a team transformed in public opinion.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov was the butt of jokes before the tournament after his team failed to win any of its last seven pre-World Cup friendlies. Now he's being hailed as a tactical genius by Russian fans who have been partying with fake mustaches in tribute to Cherchesov's distinctive facial hair.
After goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev made the decisive save in the penalty shootout against Spain, social media users depicted him as a saint in one widely shared meme. Opposition political leader Alexei Navalny called for Akinfeev to be given Russia's highest honor, the Hero of Russia medal.
"The country believed in us," midfielder Yuri Gazinsky said. "A lot of people during the match against the Spanish had doubts but we managed to prove that they can believe in us."
Watching in Siberia
The hardscrabble Siberian coal-mining town of Kaltan will watch Russia's quarterfinal with particular interest even though it won't kick off until 1 a.m. local time.
That's because Kaltan is Golovin's hometown and locals are proud.
To Kaltan football coach Alexander Golubev, Golovin has put the town on the map.
"If you say to anyone that you are from Kaltan, nobody believes it first, and then, `Really? From such a small town?"' he said. "Yes, this proves an extra time that if you are willing, (anyone) from any town in Russia, from small towns like Kaltan, can achieve these kinds of sports results."
Subasic is never truly alone on the field.
For the last decade, he has worn a picture of his former teammate Hrvoje Custic under his uniform during games, and Custic's image was there too for the shootout win over Denmark.
Custic died in 2008 after running into a concrete wall near the side of the field during a Croatian league game. His memory remains an emotional one for Subasic.
"That's what happens," Subasic said tearfully on Tuesday. "What happened to him you know the story. I don't think from my side there is need for extra explanation on that question."
Russia switched to a five-man defensive line to beat Spain after using a four-man defense in the group stage. The team's offering no hints of which option it will deploy against Croatia.
An injury to left-back Yuri Zhirkov could make the five-man option less likely, since it would mean deploying either Vladimir Granat, whose passing was poor against Spain, or Andrei Semyonov, who hasn't played for Russia in over a year.
Croatia will likely be looking to Uruguay's 3-0 win over Russia in the group stage for clues about how to beat the hosts.