Croatia were six minutes away from a passage into a semi-final playoff against England until Russia struck late in the second period of extra time to level matters at two apiece.
Scribes like me were rewriting the finale of the script over and over as fortunes changed in this epic encounter – not so much because of the quality of the play, but by theintensity of the battle.
By virtue of a 4-3 penalty shootout after 120 minutes, this ended the fairytale of the host nation, who had exceeded all expectations to make it to the quarters.
It was by far not a classic encounter, perhaps because of the prize at stake as much as the local belief that could not face disappointment.
There was little to enthuse about in a first half that saw only two shots on target – and two goals.
The Russian style, while not quite ‘brute strength’, was certainly not one of finesse: long balls on attack looking for Artem Dzyuba up front, a strong man literally head and shoulders above everyone else on the field.
But they did scrap for every ball in a midfield battle where Luka Modric was dictating the pace for Croatia.
However, he was mystifyingly playing very deep and was not connecting well with the front runners.
As in the last game, it took 30 minutes for a goal to arrive, and when it did, it was well worth the wait.
Denis Cheryshev, who has been mentioned in dispatches throughout the tournament, played a one-two with Dzyuba and from way outside the box unleashed a curling left-footed rocket into the top left corner (1-0).
For some strange reason, Croatian keeper was way off his line, but even if he had been correctly positioned he would still have stood no chance. Perhaps the goal of the World Cup thus far.
Russia abandoned their major defensive organisation in the excitement of scoring and paid the penalty minutes later when Mario Mandzukic cut in from the left and crossed for Andrej Kramaric who, despite the close attention of four Russian defenders, headed the ball into the net (1-1).
Croatia would dominate the second half and were unlucky in the 59th minute after a goalmouth scramble with Ivan Perisic hitting the inside of the upright and the ballcoming back across the goal line with Igor Akinfeev a spectator in the Russian goals.
Russia would survive on body blocks and good fortune and as the clock wound down there was more drama when Subasic in the Croatian goals appeared to pull a hamstring, with all the substitutes already used and extra time looming.
Bravely, Subasic still managed a 94th minute save. But would he last the next 30 minutes and maybe penalties to follow?
That he did, including a spectacular save in the second period of extra time after Domagoj Vida had fashioned a scrappy headed goal in the 101st minute (2-1 Croatia).
Vida then stupidly removed his jersey in the celebration and earned a yellow card that could have come back to haunt him.
Amazingly, Russia levelled matters when Mario Fernandez headed a 114th minute free kick into the far corner – just five minutes away from a penalty shootout.
Doomed Russian fans were again believers and it was game on once again until the final, final whistle and the spot kicks, when the injured Subasic would have to face Russia’s finest.
He performed with distinction, saving one spot kick and watching another go wide to
celebrate the hardest–fought game of the tournament.
Advance Croatia; be proud Russia.