There are some matches in which the spectre of penalties begins to loom with indecent haste. Everybody knew where this last-16 showdown was heading from an early point in the second half – possibly even sooner – and yet it might have needed only a single penalty.
The second period of extra time was rumbling to its seemingly inevitable conclusion when Luka Modric finally picked a pass and, all of a sudden, Ante Rebic was clean through. The Croatia winger rounded Kasper Schmeichel but he was brought down by the chasing Mathias Jørgensen, who was booked.
It was the most obvious penalty of the World Cup and the responsibility fell to Modric. It would be too much. His kick was too close to Schmeichel, who saved and, at that point, everybody in Croatia was thinking about Euro 2008, when they had lost on penalties to Turkey in the quarter-final. Back then Modric missed one of the kicks. There would be a reprieve for him and his country on this occasion.
The shootout was low on quality and heavy on nerves, which was a neat precis of what had gone before. Christian Eriksen set the tone for Denmark when he saw his kick tipped on to a post by Danijel Subasic and the Croatia goalkeeper would also deny Lasse Schöne and Nicolai Jørgensen. Schmeichel saved from Milan Badelj and Josip Pivaric but it was Ivan Rakitic who had the kick to win it.
Rakitic made no mistake and it will be Croatia that take on Russia in the quarter-final on Saturday. Modric had scored with his shootout kick, although only just. It was another wobbly one, low and straight up the middle and Schmeichel got his boot to it but could not keep it out.
The Croatia players threw Subasic up in the air during the celebrations and – in keeping with the tone of the evening – they dropped him. Mercifully Zlatko Dalic, the manager, reported he was not injured. “He was our hero tonight,” Dalic said.
The strange thing was that the tie had exploded into life at the outset to set up the possibility of a classic, with the goals coming with the first two moves. They were defined by comical defending but there was little to smile about for the remaining 116 minutes. What followed was the slow death of a spectacle. It was tight and subdued, the entertainment value horribly low.
Croatia had been arguably the team of the group stage, sweeping past Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland to advance into what was their first knockout tie since 1998, when they went all the way to the semi-finals. But it felt as though Dalic’s vibrant team were unnerved by what was at stake. It was a weirdly passive performance from them, in which they created precious little after Mario Mandzukic had cancelled out Mathias Jørgensen’s goal.
Denmark were not exactly Danish dynamite, which has been the story of their tournament. Ăge Hareide had promised that people would see “a different Denmark” but this was more of the same – a rigid display loaded with defensive discipline, in which they managed to nullify the threat of Modric and Rakitic.
“It was a wonderful effort but this is the brutality of football,” Hareide said. “We had a fantastic goalkeeper in Kasper but it didn’t help. Research has proved during penalty shootouts that your adrenaline and stress levels are as high as when you are in a war zone.”
Schmeichel added: “If you have the balls to take a penalty, you have my respect. Anyone brave enough to take one is a hero. We win and lose as a team.”
The remainder of the game felt like a reaction to the initial chaos. Neither team had previously conceded in open play at the tournament; they were not disposed to such openness and they sought to re-impose order. Caution held sway and it became an awfully tough watch.
Schmeichel made a double save in the first half to deny Rakitic and Rebic before Ivan Perisic fired the rebound high while Dejan Lovren glanced wide from a Modric free-kick. That was about it for Croatia until the Modric penalty. Where was the cut and thrust that had characterised their progress?
Denmark’s creative burden rested with Eriksen – almost everything in open play went through him – and there were couple of flickers from him in the first-half, including the moment when he floated a cross towards the back post and watched it kiss the angle of the upright. But his penalty miss summed up an evening of frustration. Croatia live to fight on.