Brazil had sambaed their way through this World Cup but in the quarter-finals they came up against a Croatia team who made them dance to a different tune.
The concertmaster, as ever, was the tireless, timeless Luka Modric. The 37-year-old had played 99 minutes four days ago in Croatia’s exhausting battle with Japan. You would not have guessed it.
The little maestro put in a virtuoso display in the middle of the park on Friday, hounding his former Real Madrid team-mate Casemiro to stifle Brazil’s build-up and, with his customary artistry in possession, ensure Croatia controlled the tempo of this match.
Across the 120 minutes, Modric completed 105 of his 115 passes, including one which helped launch his country away for their last-gasp equaliser when they were on the brink. He then capped his display with a cool penalty to consolidate Croatia’s advantage in the shootout. Some encore to the Modric masterclass.
But while Brazil’s fate in this tournament seemed centred on the pressure and possibilities facing one man in Neymar – whose wonderful record-equalling goal looked to have clinched this cagey tie – Croatia’s focus is not just on Modric.
He leads the way as captain and chief playmaker but around him are other talented technicians united with a never-say-die attitude.
This is a Croatia team capable of stopping the World Cup favourites in their tracks and a Croatia team which does not know when it is beaten. Even with two minutes of extra-time to play.
It is an incredible ethos and commitment to the cause which has seen this side take seven of their last eight opponents in knockout rounds at major tournaments into extra-time. The one exception was their defeat to France in the World Cup final four years ago.
To get to that showpiece in Moscow, Croatia went beyond the 90 minutes in each one of the three previous rounds. They are two from two so far in Qatar and just one match away from another crack at a World Cup final.
Their unshakeable mentality extends into penalty shootouts. They have now won two in a week and four in total.
It helps they have Dominik Livakovic in goal, who is looking like something of a shootout specialist, having saved three spot-kicks against Japan and another against Brazil. His latest followed a match in which he had made a tournament-high 11 saves to keep Croatia in touch.
Brazil will rue the fact they did not push him to his limits to make any of those 11 stops. Too often their finishing was tame or directed straight at the Croatia ‘keeper. But their limited attacking threat – until Neymar’s swift, slick moment of inspiration in extra-time – was a result of Croatia’s diligent work in defence.
In front of Livakovic, Dejan Lovren made a mockery of pre-tournament suggestions he is beyond his best or a potential weak link in this side, with a game-high 10 clearances. Alongside him was the standout Josko Gvardiol, who at just 20 years old, showed a remarkable ability to be composed or combative at the right moment.
The RB Leipzig youngster has been linked with Chelsea but they will all be queuing up to sign him when the transfer window opens.
To the left, Borna Sosa – the game’s top tackler – ensured Raphinha barely got a kick before restricting Antony, while right-back Josip Juranovic was a sensation, bursting forwards with pace and power, providing Croatia with a brilliant outlet and way to get up the pitch when Brazil were putting the pressure on.
In midfield, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic were note-perfect, too. It is astounding that a country of less than four million can see Ivan Rakitic retire and yet still boast three of the best central midfielders in the business.
Rakitic’s absence may not be felt but another hero of that 2018 run, Mario Mandzukic, is certainly missed.
It is in the final third where this Croatia team may come unstuck. Sub Bruno Petkovic had looked well off the pace before his deflected shot did the damage 117 minutes into this contest. Up until then, Croatia had not come close to troubling Alisson in the Brazil goal.
In fact, this was the first time on record that a team had scored with their first shot on target when that shot came in extra-time.
With that combination of strengths and weaknesses, you would be foolish to back against Croatia’s semi-final going beyond the 90 minutes too.
Certainly, if they are to be beaten in Qatar, it is going to take an almighty performance to break through their ranks and break their resistance.
“Never. Give. Up.” tweeted Modric after the match. It is the mantra of this Croatia team.