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12 Nov, 2021 10:58

Russia, Croatia set up ‘winner takes all’ World Cup decider as Zenit’s Lovren warns Russians of fiery atmosphere

Russia, Croatia set up ‘winner takes all’ World Cup decider as Zenit’s Lovren warns Russians of fiery atmosphere

Zenit St. Petersburg's Croatian captain, Dejan Lovren, has warned Russia that their trip to Split on Sunday will be a like a 'visit to the devil' as the two countries prepare to square off with World Cup qualification on the line.

Both Russia and Croatia enjoyed easy wins in Thursday's fixtures, with Valeri Karpin's side breezing past Cyrpus at the Krestovsky Stadium to the tune of six unanswered goals, while Croatia routed Malta 7-1 in scores which acted as the perfect appetizer to Sunday's showdown between the Group H pacesetters in Croatia's second-largest city.

Karpin continued his fine start to his career as Russia boss in a frigid St. Petersburg, with his undefeated run since succeeding Stanislav Cherchesov maintained as his side dominated an outmatched Cypriot team throughout.

Aleksandr Erokhin bagged a brace while Fedor Smolov, Andrey Mostovoy, Aleksei Sutormin and Anton Zabolotny also found the net as Russia piled on the pressure in the second half.

The Croats, meanwhile, looked equally imperious as they put seven past a hapless Malta side – whose only strike came courtesy of a Marcelo Brozovic own goal – with the 2018 World Cup semi-finalists currently in second position in the group, two points behind Russia.

As expected, Sunday's showdown in Split will now come with a winner-takes-all narrative, ensuring the victor passage to next year's World Cup in Qatar and sending the loser into the playoff lottery. 

A draw would also be enough for Russia to secure their qualification for the tournament.

Ahead of what promises to be the sternest test of Karpin's young international management career, Zenit skipper Lovren has warned the Russians that fire and brimstone awaits them when they touch down ahead of Sunday's game.

And speaking to the media this week, Lovren said that the 34,000 capacity Stadion Poljud, home of Hadjuk Split, will feel to the visitors like they are walking into hell.

"To be honest, I like the atmosphere at the stadium in Split even more [than their regular home in Zagreb]," he said, via translation.

"There you will feel as if you are on a visit to the devil. It will be awesome!

"A real finale awaits us. Yes, the Croatian national team rarely plays in Split, so I think that people will gladly come to the stadium and give all their strength and emotions to support us. It will be great."

Sunday's fixture will be a rematch of the 2018 World Cup semi-final in Sochi, which Croatia won on a penalty shootout – and Lovren knows that if this game ends as a draw after 90 minutes, it will Russia celebrating at the final whistle and Croatia heading to the playoffs.

"Well, for us there will be only one possible option – victory," he said. "But we must be careful and attentive, because the Russian national team is creating good counterattacks. In any case, it will be a difficult match."