“If not you, who? If not now, when?”
Russian supporters unveiled banners that read these famous words ahead of their World Cup quarter-final date with Croatia on Day 21, with their side going in search of a first semi-final appearance since 1966 – when they were then known as the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, the time wasn’t now for a Russian team that had unexpectedly brought a sense of togetherness and pride back to their noble country.
Day 21 saw us bid a fond farewell to our charming and welcoming hosts on another drama-packed evening of football.
Three Lions roar into semis with comfortable win against Sweden
England reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1990 with a comfortable and comprehensive victory against a struggling Sweden.
Goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli in each half were enough for the Three Lions to reach the last four of a major tournament for only the second time on foreign soil.
Despite being in the driving seat for large spells, England were put under pressure on a number of occasions and had inspired goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to thank as they kept their first clean sheet of Russia 2018.
The game started pretty even, but after Gareth Southgate’s men took control of the possession, they struggled for the most part to create any clear openings.
But that was until they started winning set pieces – which has more than been their forte during the last three weeks.
On the half hour mark, England won a corner down the left side, and Ashley Young strolled over to take it.
In Young and his opposite wingback, Kieran Trippier, England find themselves spoilt for choice when it comes to dangerous set-piece takers. This one was the turn of the experienced Manchester United man, who delivered a straight ball into the area, and with how the competition had gone thus far, you just knew it would be a red shirt that got on the end of it.
The red shirt in question this time around wasn’t worn by captain Harry Kane, nor defender John Stones, but a fellow member of the latter’s defensive trio – Harry Maguire, who timed his run to perfection and left Emil Forsberg in a heap after powering his header low and fiercely past the helpless Robin Olsen.
Yet another set-piece had left fans across the nation, as well as those who had made the trip to Samara, utterly delighted once more.
And as England gained confidence from Maguire’s first international goal firing them ahead, they looked the more likely to score next as they went in search of extending their lead.
One of the side’s unsung heroes, Jordan Henderson, lofted a perfect first-time through ball from his own half and picked out Raheem Sterling, who had beaten the offside trap by finding a gap between the two Swedish centre halves.
Sterling’s first touch was exquisite as he brought it down sublimely on the edge of the box, but faced by Olsen, the Manchester City forward’s lack of cutting edge in the final third let him down not for the first time this summer.
He opted to take it round the goalkeeper rather than shoot, and as Olsen got a hand to it, Sweden recovered with bodies on the line, and despite having both Kane and Alli to his left, Sterling eventually went alone before seeing his effort deflected behind for a corner.
That was a big chance spurned, as Sterling’s wait for a tournament goal for England went on. But would his side later be made to pay for the miss?
Early on in the second half, they nearly were.
Pickford was at last called into action and made the first of a string of stunning saves to keep the Swedes at bay and England in pole position.
Ludwig Augustinsson, who had been one of the more impressive left-backs during the group stage of the tournament, curled a dangerous ball into the area which striker Marcus Berg rose highest to win.
He beat Young to the cross, but his powerful header was brilliantly saved by Pickford – scrambling across his line and getting a strong left hand to the ball to beat it away from danger.
That was the warning sign England needed, and Southgate’s men pressed on in response as they looked for that second goal to kill the game.
And luckily for them, it didn’t take too much longer to find.
A nice move saw Trippier released in space down the right. With bodies in the box, a cross seemed likely, but the Spurs man cleverly cut back and found Jesse Lingard in space on the edge of the area.
The Manchester United man played a delightful first-time cross in, and having peeled off his marker to beat the offside trap, Dele Alli nodded a free header past Olsen from four yards out.
Unlike against the Colombians in the round of 16, England crucially had a two-goal lead, and with half an hour to play, it was all about game management for Southgate and his troops as they looked to seal their spot in the final four.
But even though they were looking comfortable, Sweden still posed a threat as England desperately defended in a bid to claim their first clean sheet of the tournament.
A terrific move from the Swedes saw Viktor Claesson bamboozle Maguire before finding Ola Toivonen in the box. He played a first-time ball across the area which his strike partner Berg flicked to the onrushing Claesson, but his powerful low effort from close to the penalty spot was superbly kept out by the diving Pickford.
England scrambled to eventually get the ball clear thanks to Henderson’s block on the follow-up, but it was another clear indication that the game was not yet won.
The disappointing Forsberg, who was seen as Sweden’s most creative spark prior to the match, was subbed, as England’s opponents seemed devoid of ideas on how to beat the plucky Pickford.
And the Three Lions shot-stopper was to have one final hurrah, as he cemented his place in English hearts.
Former Manchester City man John Guidetti was one of those introduced, and his pass across the box found Berg with his back to goal, but as the big man swivelled and striked the ball towards the roof of the net, Pickford was there again – with great reflexes – to raise his hand and tip it over the ball.
In truth, England weren’t at their free-flowing best, but as was the case with the French against Uruguay the day previous, they were always in control and never panicked.
As the celebrations got underway in Samara and back home, England fans are daring to dream that this could well be their year.
Only their fourth-ever tournament semi-final awaits them on Wednesday night after their biggest ever quarter-final victory, and it would take a brave man to write these even braver lions off, as they continue to roar their way to unprecedented success in Russia.
Croatian delight as they book place in semi-final at expense of hosts
Croatia won their second penalty shoot out in as many games to advance to the World Cup semi finals for the second time in their history, ending the tournament for hosts Russia, who equalised late on in extra time.
Danijel Subasic, who was the hero against Denmark, was the man of the moment again. He saved Russia’s first attempt from the spot to give Croatia the confidence to go on and win, helped via a poor Mario Fernandes penalty.
As they have been all tournament, the home support was firmly behind their nation, roaring Stanislav Chershesov’s team forward from the off. The Russian fans have been treated to a surprisingly good national team in their host World Cup.
Despite this, it was Croatia who started the brightest, with Ante Rebic and Ivan Rakitic going extremely close early on.
The Croatians dominated the early exchanges, but it was Russia who opened the scoring just past the half hour mark.
Cheryshev gathered the ball, before playing a neat one-two with Artem Dyzyba to get around Luka Modric. The Villarreal man then launched a stop from the edge of the box into the top corner, leaving Subasic helpless.
The crowd erupted as expected, but their side was pegged back as Croatia equalised just eight minutes later.
Hoffenheim striker Andrej Kramaric was the man to get that goal, as he latched on to the end of a Mario Mandzukic cross to head home.
The second half was much more cagey as neither team were prepared to come out of their shell too much.
Croatia had the better of the chances, as Akinfeev stood tall on numerous occasions, but the goal seemed far away.
The game went to extra-time, with both teams used to this situation from their round of sixteen ties.
Croatia were the better side, and were rewarded with what seemed to be a winner.
Domagoj Vida got on the end of Modric’s cross and headed goalwards, through a crowded penalty area into the back of the net.
Croatia celebrated as if they had won, but it turned out to be premature celebrations, as Russia equalised with just minutes remaining in extra time.
Alan Dzagoev’s cross was flicked in at the back post by Fernandes to level the game in the 115th minute.
It was evident that both teams were to settle for penalties, which was the ultimate outcome.
Smolov began the shootout with a weak effort that Subasic was able to save well, and Brozovic fired Croatia into the lead.
The scores were back level when Kovacic scuffed his effort at Akinfeev, after Dzagoev had scored his attempt.
Fernandes hit a poor attempt wide of the post, and Modric’s effort ended up in the goal despite a strong Akinfeev hand.
Both Vida and Ignashevich found the net at the fourth round, and Daler Kuzyaev scored for Russia to keep them alive, but it was ultimately ended as Ivan Rakitic scored to send Croatia through.
Ivan Rakitic has now won two shootouts for his nation.
Croatia become only the second team to win consecutive shoot outs in a single World Cup since Argentina in 1990. They consequently have booked a semi final date with England on Wednesday.
Player of the Day – Jordan Pickford (England)
It’s very rare that one player outshines the rest of the competition on more than one occasion over the course of a day at a World Cup, but here at Pomona de Futbol we are delighted to say that we have the first two-time winner of our Player of the Day accolade.
With the sheer abundance of attacking talent that has been on display throughout these finals, you would be forgiven for thinking that it could be a Messi or a Ronaldo that was the first man to be a two-day star performer.
But you would also be wrong. Ironically, the two men it boiled down to for Day 21’s top player were both goalkeepers – and both had previously been given recognition from our writers.
Danijel Subasic will go down in Croatian folklore after his successive shootout heroics have seen him lead his small nation to the semi-finals for a second time, but ultimately the plaudits go yet again, to England’s impressive Jordan Pickford.
Any doubts Three Lions supporters may have had over who their number one should be in Russia have been more than answered, as the Everton man has excelled beyond his years.
At just 24, Pickford is England’s youngest ever tournament goalkeeper, but could potentially go down in history as one of the side’s greatest, should he continue with his near-perfect performances.
Since taking criticism from his Belgian counterpart Thibaut Courtois, Pickford has taken his game to another level. He has dug deep when England needed him most, and having been the hero against Colombia, continued to raise his stock with another match-winning display against the Swedes.
Optimists believe it’s coming home, whilst the pessimists still feel it will eventually all come crashing down, but whatever happens – Pickford has had a wonderful tournament, and has the potential to go down as one of the finest goalkeepers to wear the Three Lions across his chest, despite his humble beginnings.