Who needs Iniesta?
Spain scored just seven minutes into this match thanks to David Silva and Cesc Fabregas. In a move started deep in midfield, Silva cut in from the right and threaded a lovely ball onto the on-running Fabregas who picked it up, breached the Croatia defence and chiped across goal. Alvaro Morata was there to bundle in before a covering defender could clear.
Andres Iniesta for once was not part of the move. In fact, he had a largely quiet opening to this game as Croatia got tight on the mercurial talisman. Not that Spain were greatly affected by the man marking, with Silva, Fabregas and Duran pulling the strings.
Croatia responded perfectly to Czech draw and crowd trouble
Croatia surrendered a two-goal lead to draw with Czech Republic in their previous game — one that was disrupted by the alarming violence of fans fighting between themselves in the Croat end. It was clear the disruption affected the team last week and they accordingly let slip their lead in the final minute.
Spain is not the ideal opponent to face off the back of a draw that felt like a defeat. And performance-wise the wind had definitely been knocked out of Croatia’s sails. But they persevered and after conceding early actually matched Spain for possession in midfield and eventually made that presence count with Nikola Kalinic’s neat finish before the break.
Croatia were able to play with more freedom than most against Spain because result didn’t matter tonight. And Ivan Perisic deserved his late winner on the counter attack after a sterling display. Northern Ireland’s 1-0 defeat to Germany in the earlier game was enough to ensure Croatia progression to the last-16 but they now get the bonus of finishing as group winners.
How to score against Spain
Listen up Euro 2016 coaches! You actually CAN score against Spain. Nikola Kalinic’s leveller moments before half time was a lesson in attacking football and thoroughly deserved from a Croatia side playing with no fear because they had already qualified. Ivan Perisic’s late winner topped it off for the Croats.
Kalinic’s deft flick ended a number of records. It was the first European Championship goal Spain have conceded in 735 minutes, since the start of Euro 2012. It also ended Spain’s 10-game run of victories with clean sheets in European finals and qualification matches. One more clean sheet and they would have broken Holland’s record set between 2004 and 2006.
The goal came from Croatia’s willingness to attack Spain and press them high up the field — something Turkey were too petrified to do last week. Croatia’s enthusiastic attacking unit of Ivan Perisic and co. were happy to push Spain back before getting a ball across to Kalinic. Maybe going wide and thus avoiding centre-halves Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique is the best method of getting at Spain.
Tactician Antonio Conte will have watched this game intently
Spain will play Italy in the last-16 in what could be the most pragmatic game of the tournament. And Spain better be careful they don’t slip up again. Tactician Antonio Conte will likely already be plotting his way past the Spaniards, who struggled to hand Croatia’s attacking unit of Kalinic, Perisic, Ivan Rakitic and Marko Pjaca. Throw Mario Mandzukic and Marcelo Brozovic in there, with Luka Modric orchestrating from midfield, and you can see why fans are getting excited about Croatia.
Can Italy play like the Croats? Conte will hope so, especially with his lack of a top-class centre-forward meaning their midfield will likely do most of the creating.
Italy probably won’t press as much as Croatia did tonight — they are always wary of conceding in knockout games — and so it will come down to midfield dominance. Iniesta, Sergio Buesquets and Fabregas will be tasked with out-thinking Conte’s masterplan which is likely being drawn up as we speak.
New UEFA rules
Turns out those additional assistant referees really do nothing at all. Here’s Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic practically picking the ball up from the penalty spot when saving Sergio Ramos's effort.