The Associated Press MOSCOW (AP) — It doesn’t matter that few Russian fans ever expected the host team 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 against 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 World Cup: a run to 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.”
From 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.”
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.