SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Croatia progressed to the semi-finals of the World Cup after a second successive penalty shootout on Saturday but their inability to put away another unimpressive team over 90 minutes and extra time is a major worry for the Balkan side.
Croatia will now face England on Wednesday in Moscow and after two long and tiring games they will surely start as heavy-legged underdogs.
However, a bigger issue for coach Zlatko Dalic will be how to get more decisive performances from his top players.
Luka Modric won the man of the match award for the third time in five games at this World Cup, with a superb array of passing from a deep role in midfield.
But as in the previous match against Denmark – which Croatia also won on penalties after an insipid 1-1 draw - all too often his team mates failed to do anything with them.
Up front, Mario Mandzukic was leaden and static and a strike rate of one goal apiece in five games for him, Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Ante Rebic is disappointing.
Ivan Rakitic, so often a key man for Barcelona, was not nearly as influential as at club level, while in defence, Russia’s Mario Fernandes beat more highly rated defenders to head home a late equaliser.
Croatia often looked reluctant to attack and Modric’s words after the game hinted at a lack of adventure that will surely cost them sooner or later.
“Russia played a very good game, particularly in the first half, they surprised us, they pressed us very high, we could not build up our play,” Modric said. “We did not want to risk some passes that would tip the balance in our favour.”
That caution is disappointing but if there is a silver lining for Dalic, it is that his team once again showed the mental strength to win on penalties - a not inconsiderable feat in front of a partisan 44,000 crowd in Sochi.
But he was fatalistic on the prospect of another spot kick ordeal.
“In the second half and in extra time we dominated, we should have finished the job before penalties,” he said, “but maybe it’s written in the stars that we have to go through the extra drama.”
Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Christian Radnedge