‘Only Croatia can do this’ — breaking down the comeback that stunned Brazil

Croatia celebrated “one of the greatest wins” after coming from 1-0 down in extra-time to beat Brazil on penalties in the World Cup quarter-final.

“We conceded a goal but came back and demonstrated our character,” said Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic. “We beat the country with the greatest World Cup record. Only Croats can do this. We have incredible strength. We shall not surrender.”

Neymar scored a brilliant goal for Brazil after 106 minutes but, with 15 minutes of extra-time remaining to salvage their World Cup, Croatia pulled off a remarkable comeback.

A semi-final against Argentina awaits this nation of just under four million people as they bid to reach the World Cup final in consecutive tournaments and go one better than their defeat by France in Russia four years ago.

Brazil, the favourites to win the World Cup and the No 1 ranked team, were the 13th side to go ahead in extra-time of a World Cup game but the first team to fail to hold on.

“Now it’s time to go to the bedroom and cry because we are human beings,” said Brazil striker Richarlison. “We are flesh and blood. We suffered a very painful defeat and we could have won.”

The Athletic has spoken to those involve, drawn on tactical analysis and watched the drama that unfolded at Doha’s Education City Stadium to explain how Croatia did it in the last 15 minutes of extra-time and penalties…

Croatia: Manager Zlatko Dalic, goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, right-back Josip Juranovic, left-back Borna Sosa

Brazil: Manager Tite, forward Neymar, striker Richarlison

The Athletic: Liam Tharme, David Ornstein, Laura Williamson and Matt Slater


105 minutes

David Ornstein: Brazil’s substitutes spent most of extra-time standing in their technical area. They kicked and headed every ball, and protested every decision. It appeared they had little emotional control and stood in stark contrast to the ice-cool approach of Croatia.

Fourth official Mustapha Ghorbal from Algeria went to speak to Brazil players to tell them to sit down, and several rounded on him at half-time of extra-time to protest about an on-field decision.

Liam Tharme: In the first half of extra-time Brazil had enjoyed 62 per cent possession, scoring right at the end of that period through Neymar. But after the break they had just 29 per cent possession. Everything changed.

Brazil took off Eder Militao and Lucas Paqueta for Alex Sandro and Fred after 15 minutes of extra-time. Croatia replaced Mateo Kovacic with Lovro Majer.

Tharme: Tite’s substitutions were questionable. His introduction of Sandro for Militao led to Danilo reverting to his traditional right-back position. Which is fine, right? Well, not exactly.

Danilo has spent the last couple of games playing inverted as a left-back and operating in more of a defensive midfield role, which would have done little to prepare him against Ivan Perisic, a two-footed dribbler and crosser. And Danilo’s support was Antony, who offers energy but little in the way of defensive security.

Tite: Look, it’s not me who lost the game, it’s the entire team. We focused on creating chances but we didn’t take them.

Tharme: It was clear that Brazil are not a perfectly compact defensive unit but that is to be expected for a team which is rarely out of possession and do most of their defending with the ball. The press became erratic but in being largely passive it allowed Luka Modric to drop deeper and dictate play without much pressure…

… and with fresh legs in Rennes’ Majer off the bench, Croatia could play with their midfield triangle (blue dots) wider and push on their full-backs (back four is highlighted with white dots) to attack Brazil down the flanks.

And boy did they attack down the flanks.

Zlatko Dalic: I’ve said several times that we have the best midfield in the world. We have passers who can keep control of the ball, we have players who can intercept their passes. When they receive the ball they don’t panic. The midfield is the best part of our team, we can keep possession and block our opponents.

Josip Juranovic, Croatia’s right-back: We believe in ourselves. I can say we have the best midfielders ever — Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic, if they are in the game we will control it 90 per cent. Our older players, they said some words to us younger ones at our first big tournament.

106min

Tharme: Whether Croatia saw the Danilo-Antony pairing as a weak spot or simply the strength of Perisic as the reason to attack down Brazil’s right, there were repeated attacks down that side.

Centre-back Josko Gvardiol plays around Antony to get Perisic one v one against Danilo…

…and note how deep the left-back Sosa is. He is not overlapping and providing cover. Perisic beats Danilo and gets a cross in but overhits it.

The same pattern happens just 90 seconds later, with Perisic going up against Antony, who wins the duel.

And just 30 seconds later — because Brazil were so passive and allowed Croatia to sustain attacks — they get in again.

Perisic receives from Sosa (blue arrow) and can find Modric as the third man running beyond Danilo (white arrow), with the central midfielder winning a corner.

110min

Off went Sosa for Croatia, replaced by Ante Budimir.

114min

Mislav Orsic came on to replace Brozovic.

Tharme: Croatia’s team pass map from the second-half of extra-time shows us patterns.

Firstly, Brazil’s decision to sit-off was largely sensible but unlike Brazil. It allowed Croatia to sustain attacks and they kept getting in down the left wing (Brazil’s right) and into crossing positions.

They did not dominate possession but looking at the territory map, Croatia controlled both flanks in the Brazil half.

Dalic: We had no plan to change tactics (in the second half of extra-time) but Brazil made us do it with their quality. We had to back off. It wasn’t good and it put us in a difficult situation. I wanted them to push up and attack Brazil in the middle of the pitch but they pushed us back. And that’s where our players showed their mental strength. When we were 1-0 down, with their fans singing, it was unbelievable. But Croatia showed something not many countries can do.

116min

Tharme: Look at Brazil’s lack of emotional control. As the ball is being cleared downfield, Brazil’s bench are all on the edge of their technical area.

Tite took off Paqueta, who had been playing alongside Casemiro in central midfield, at half-time in extra-time.

But it was the Manchester United midfielder who was on a yellow card and it was he who chose not to tactically foul Modric in the build-up to Croatia’s goal. The pair, former Real Madrid team-mates, had swapped shirts after 45 minutes.

Note Brazil’s structure, or rather lack of it, here, too. They have seven players high in the opposition half yet are not counter-pressing with any real intensity and Modric can release Nikola Vlasic with one pass (the solid white arrow).

Looking at this from above, Brazil’s absence of any rest defence is clear — they are three versus three on the last line of defence…

…so when Croatia break, a clever run inside from Budimir pulls Danilo inside and makes space for Vlasic to find Orsic on the outside…

…who can find Bruno Petkovic, the deeper of the Croatians flooding the box, with a cutback.

This should have not been a huge surprise for Brazil. Across the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Croatia have been involved in five games that have gone to extra-time, recording 40 crosses in that time and 25 of those coming from the left wing. It is clear which is their favoured route of attack.

117min

Petkovic scores with a shot that is deflected off Marquinhos

Laura Williamson: Pandemonium from those in red and white; stunned silence from everyone else. The Croatian party — friends, family and officials — were sitting behind the dugout and celebrated the equaliser with gusto. Even the men in navy suits were pumping their fists.

Tite: It is very difficult to determine if you have the mental preparation for a situation like that or not. We were 1-0 up with, what was it, two, three, four minutes left? They had one shot. We had, how many? So we did have control. They had one deflected shot on goal.

Sosa: For us a draw was a good feeling because we knew if it came to penalties we had age on our side.

Juranovic: We are practising (penalties) in a training session after the training session. When we score a goal for 1-1 I was thinking, “yes, we have it”.


Penalties

Croatia won the first coin toss and elected to take their penalties first. Brazil won the second and chose the end in front of their most vibrant fans.

Williamson: The Croatia huddle was tight and intense whereas Brazil’s looked more sprawling. Similarly, Croatia players got to the halfway line first and occupied the side of the pitch nearest to the technical area. Brazil’s tactical coach Cleber Xavier told Tite’s players who would be taking which penalty kicks.

Dalic: I believe we become favourites in penalty shootouts because our opponents know how good at them we are. It is almost like they have lost already.

Tharme: If there is one situation you do not want to face Croatia in, it’s penalties.

They were involved in three (all wins) at the 2018 World Cup and have won two shoot-outs in Qatar, beating Japan in the round of 16 and now Brazil.

Their shootout conversion rate across those five is not outstanding, scoring 14 of 18 attempts, an incredibly average 77 per cent. But they have remarkably conceded only eight times from 19 penalties faced, a 42 per cent return.

Croatia 1-0 Brazil: Vlasic scores

Tharme: Vlasic took their first in the wins against Japan and Brazil, with both of Croatia’s first two penalties against Brazil going down the middle. Multiple shootouts at this tournament have seen the team shooting first miss their opening spot-kick, including Japan against Croatia, but not on Friday.

Croatia 1-0 Brazil: Rodrygo saved

Neymar: It’s not easy to assume that responsibility. Rodrygo is a very young boy. I always said: “This responsibility is mine, I’m the oldest, you have to play football.” But he wanted to take responsibility for the penalty and hit it. You can only miss if you hit. Unfortunately, the ball did not go in.


(Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Dalic: Livakovic was the difference and he was there to save us. He did his job. He was the difference in the shootout, too, because he saved the first penalty and then created doubt in their players.

Livakovic: We played with our hearts out. We are very experienced and we are raised as fighters. We spare no effort and we always give our best. That’s our recipe for success.

Croatia 2-0 Brazil: Majer scores

Croatia 2-1 Brazil: Casemiro scores

Croatia 3-1 Brazil: Modric scores

Dalic: Modric was the leader of the team. He played until the final minute and then scored his penalty. He never got tired. It is incredible that he was ready to play for 120 minutes after just four days’ rest at 37. He is one of the best players in the world.


(Photo: Hector Vivas – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Croatia 3-2 Brazil: Pedro scores

Croatia 4-2 Brazil: Orsic scores

Tharme: Brazil goalkeeper Alisson only guessing the right way for one of the four Croatia penalties (and not even saving that one) was surprising.

Croatia 4-2 Brazil. Marquinhos hits the post and Croatia are through

Tharme: Tite’s selection of Marquinhos early in the shootout seems puzzling, although he did score for Brazil in the 2019 penalties win against Paraguay at the Copa America, and took the second penalty there.

The substitutes did not suit a shootout either. Richarlison, Raphinha — who took penalties for Leeds United last season — and Paqueta were all likely takers but they were replaced by more defensively-minded players.

Tite: Why was Neymar the fifth penalty-taker? Because the fifth penalty is the decisive one and is the most pressured. The player who is the most mentally prepared for that should take the last penalty kick.

Dalic: What do I think about Brazil saving Neymar for the last penalty? I would use him.


Celebrations and “mourning”

Williamson: Tite quickly disappeared down the tunnel but Neymar sat slumped in the centre circle for a long time, at one point lying on his back and pulling his yellow shirt over his face. Antony was lying face down on the turf; Thiago Silva stood on his own area in the penalty area, then applauded the liveliest Brazil supporters behind the goal. The sense of shock was palpable.


(Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Neymar: The feeling is really bad. It’s worse today than what happened in the past. We tried, we fought, and I’m proud of all my team-mates. I’m proud of their personality, of taking the penalty, of their character, because it’s not easy to assume that responsibility.

We will all learn from this. I don’t know what will happen from now on in the Brazilian team, but now it’s time to mourn.

Ornstein: Children wearing Croatia shirts spilled onto the pitch after the final whistle to celebrate with their fathers, friends and relatives. A boy and a girl with No 4 on their backs — perhaps Perisic’s children — ran straight towards Neymar in the centre circle and tried to speak to him. The Brazilian just about managed a smile and tapped them on the head. Croatia then had an extended team picture.

Sosa: It was a lot of emotions. It was a lot of happy tears. We are showing good results and nobody expected this or believed in us. It’s emotional. For me Brazil is football and football is Brazil. To beat Brazil is maybe the best feeling ever.


Post-match

Croatia players came through to speak to the press pretty quickly but Brazil were still holed up in the dressing room when Argentina against the Netherlands kicked off.

Juranovic: Underdogs? We have shown everybody we are one of the top teams in the world. I got Dani Alves’ shirt. When I was younger I was looking up to him all the time.

Richarlison: We did almost everything right. Unfortunately, we will not crown the excellent work we built. Now it’s time to suffer a little. I have to apologise to our family members and our fans who believed in us until the end.

Matt Slater: Dalic was his usual self in the post-match press conference. If he hadn’t just pulled off a famous win you would think he was the smuggest man on the planet. He oozes self-confidence.

He spoke very quickly but calmly and stopped one answer to tell a radio journalist to stop talking. He listens to every answer in English but answers in Croatian.

He loves creating this us against the world vibe, so he creates situations out of nothing. Brazil’s dancing, someone (God knows who) suggesting Modric is past it. It’s nonsense but it’s very effective.


(Photo: Hector Vivas – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Tite: We need to be ready to share our joys and be willing to share our sadness. There is a new generation of players coming through who will find strength in adversity. I am not a hypocrite, I know I am the one who is most responsible but it’s not about being a hero or a villain. There’s no such thing in sport. That’s just football. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. Sometimes the ball takes a deflection and goes in. That’s football. I respect the result.

What’s next for me? It’s hard to say now but it’s a stalemate in terms of my time with Brazil. I have said before that this cycle has ended and there are other great professionals who can replace me.

Slater: Tite is famously chilled out but he might have been trying too hard to exude calm this time. The post-match questions from the Brazilians were pointed but they weren’t as angry as expected.

His overall assessment appeared to be that football kicks you sometimes. Brazil created 10 chances, Croatia’s goalkeeper was inspired and Brazil probably should have scored more. And then Croatia equalised with their only shot and it needed a deflection.

Sosa: Can Croatia win the World Cup? Of course. Now everything is possible. In the semi-final we are very dangerous and if it comes to penalties we have a 100 per cent record. This gives us an advantage.

We will see.

(Photo: Mike Hewitt – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

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