Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic has entered World Cup history, making three penalty saves to end Japan’s giant-killing run at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Having beaten European heavyweights Germany and Spain in the group stage, the Samurai Blue were looking to add Croatia to their list — and at times overnight it looked like they would.

But in a penalty shootout, Japan’s penalty takers faltered in front of the big frame of the Croatian number one.

With the teams locked at 1-1 at the end of regular and extra time, Livakovic produced a performance for the ages, saving the first two penalties from Takumi Minamino and Kaoru Mitoma.

When Nikola Vlasic and Marcelo Brozovic scored theirs, Croatia led 2-0, but then Takuma Asano scored for Japan, and a miss from Marko Livaja, which hit the post, gave the Samurai Blue life.

But again Livakovic stood tall as he went the right way to stop Japan captain Maya Yoshida’s penalty, before Mario Pasalic scored for Croatia to see the runners-up from Russia 2018 advance.

For Japan, this was last-16 heartache for the fourth time, after a loss to Turkey in 2002, exiting on penalties against Paraguay in 2010 and giving up a 2-0 lead to lose to a stoppage-time goal against Belgium four years ago.

Several players were in tears on the pitch, with Yoshida putting words to their heartache.

Japan's Shuichi Gonda and Eiji Kawashima look dejected after a penalty shootout.
Japan’s national football team once again endured penalty heartbreak at the World Cup.(Reuters: Dylan Martinez)

“Every day for four years we worked hard to break this barrier [by reaching the final eight] but we couldn’t get the result we wanted,” he said.

“It’s really hard to take.”

The match did not always looked like belonging to the highly credentialed European side and, in fact, it was Japan which dominated the first half.

The pace of the Samurai Blue troubled the bigger Croatia side, which frequently saw Ritsu Doan and Junya Ito making overlapping runs in behind its defence.

The first warning shot came just three minutes in when Shogu Taniguchi sent a free header wide from close range — a missed opportunity Japan would later rue.

But they continued to add pressure and their goal came in the 43rd minute when striker Daizen Maeda thrashed the ball home from close range after a Doan cross was knocked down by Yoshida.

Maeda was the quickest to react as he finished past Croatian goalkeeper Livakovic to send Japan into rapturous celebrations and a 1-0 lead at the break.

Football players in blue shirts hugging in celebration.
Maeda is embraced by Endo after scoring the goal for the Samurai Blue.(Getty Images:  Mike Hewitt )

It then took little time for Croatia to find their feet in the second half and they levelled through a long-range and powerful headed goal from Ivan Perisic.

Perisic met Dejan Lovren’s cross with a powerful header that found the corner of Shuichi Gonda’s net.

The equaliser stirred both teams into action.

Almost immediately, Watanu Endo unleashed from outside the area and forced Livakovic into tipping the ball over the bar.

Luka Modric had a sweetly struck shot from range turned over by Gonda in the 63rd minute and substitute Ante Budimir steered a header wide of the post.

Gonda again had to be at his best to keep out a rocket of a shot from Perisic in the 77th minute, while at the other end Japan continued their raids but without carving out any clear-cut chances.

Extra time was a little more ragged, but a thrilling run and piledriver of a shot from Japan substitute Mitoma brought a fine save out from Livakovic just before the break.