Mon, 30 Jan 2023

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Resilient Croatia stunned ambitious Brazil on penalties to reach Qatar World Cup semis, ending Neymar's first and Brazil's sixth title hope.

By Sportswriter Michael Place

DOHA, Dec. 9 (Xinhua) -- Croatia advanced to the 2022 FIFA World Cup semifinals by defeating Brazil 4-2 in a dramatic penalty shootout here on Friday.

Neymar appeared to put the South American team on course for victory with a superb 106th-minute strike after a driving run in the quarterfinal at Education City stadium.

But Croatia substitute Bruno Petkovic equalized with a left-footed shot that deflected in off Marquinhos with four minutes of extra time remaining.

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Mislav Orsic, Luka Modric, Lovro Majer and Nikola Vlasic converted each of Croatia's spot kicks in the shootout. Rodrygo's feeble first attempt was saved by Dominik Livakovic before Pedro and Casemiro held their nerve only for Marquinhos to send his team's fourth penalty crashing against the left post.

Croatia, runners-up at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, will meet either Argentina or the Netherlands at Lusail stadium on Tuesday (Dec. 13) with a berth in the final at stake.

Neymar's strike saw him equal Pele as Brazil's all-time leading scorer but it will be of little consolation for the 30-year-old, who admitted last month that this could be his last chance to win football's ultimate prize.

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Brazil struggled early as they appeared to suffocate against Croatia's high press. On a rare foray forward, Vinicius Junior had a feeble shot from distance comfortably saved by Livakovic.

Josip Juranovic was tasked with marking Vinicius Junior but also showed his attacking instincts by bombing forward at every opportunity on the right wing.

He provided Croatia's first scoring chance with a dashing run and layoff to Mario Pasalic on the right side of the penalty box. But the Atalanta midfielder's cross flew past the overlapping Juranovic and Ivan Perisic as Brazil breathed a collective sigh of relief.

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Vinicius was proving to be Brazil's chief attacking threat and he played a neat one-two with Richarlison before his shot was blocked by Lovren.

Neymar lacked his usual influence as he struggled to find space against Croatia's compact defensive line. The Paris Saint-Germain forward's only attempt on target in the first half was a weak attempt from 15 yards directed straight at Livakovic.

Brazil slowly grew into the contest and Casemiro saw his low drive from distance ricochet out of play after Richarlison's deft ball control and pass.

But Croatia remained ominous on the counterattack as Juranovic posed a constant danger on the right flank. The Celtic defender's long diagonal pass on the stroke of halftime found Perisic, who danced around Eder Militao only to send a shot sailing over the crossbar.

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Brazil lifted the tempo after halftime, passing the ball with greater urgency and seeking to run at Croatia's defense.

Neymar had a shot blocked by Josko Gvardiol and the Brazil No. 10 was again denied shortly after when he combined with Richarlison only to see his effort rebound out of play off Livakovic's right leg.

Croatia were suddenly forced to defend deeper as Brazil pushed forward with greater intensity. Neymar was again involved when he threaded a pass to Paqueta, whose clipped effort was swiped clear by Livakovic.

The Croatia keeper was in inspired form, repeatedly repelling Brazil's goalward efforts. Neymar and Paqueta were both denied by the Dinamo Zagreb player as the South American side peppered his goal in the final minutes.

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Brazil continued to look more likely to score in extra-time but lacked a cutting edge. Rodrygo floated a cross from the left that was cleared and Pedro failed to make clean contact with a scissor kick after Militao's cross.

Croatia were not about to surrender and burst forward through Petkovic, who side-stepped an opponent before squaring the ball to Marcelo Brozovic. The Inter Milan midfielder had time to steady but blazed a shot over the crossbar.

Brazil broke the deadlock in the 106th minute when Neymar started and finished a move that will surely be a candidate for goal of the tournament.

The former Barcelona star evoked memories of Ronaldo Nazario as he played successive one-twos with Rodrygo and Paqueta while driving into the box at speed.

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He then showed brilliant strength and composure by squeezing between two defenders and rounding Livakovic before slotting the ball into an empty net from a tight angle.

Neymar now has 77 goals for Brazil, a tally reached in 124 matches compared to Pele's 92 games.

Croatia drew level in the 116th minute when Petkovic, a 72nd-minute substitute for Pasalic, received a pass from Orsic before firing a shot that took a deflection to leave Alisson with no chance as the match went to a shootout.

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