Spain and Italy have progressed from group C after a nail biting conclusion to the third set of final group stage games at the Euros. At kick off Bilic and his side probably believed they held a good chance of progressing to Croatia’s third quarter finals at the European Championships, knowing that a draw or even a loss could see them go through depending on the result of the other fixture played out last night (Monday) in Poznan between Italy and Ireland. Unfortunately Ireland were unable to reverse their poor performances at the Euros this tournament and even the pride of finishing ahead of Italy was not enough to motivate them to get something against the Italians, which would have helped Croatia out greatly. The Croatians were desperately unlucky to go out on the back of what I consider to be one the best performances against Spain in a long time, and if they had been more cynical in front of goal the story may have been much different.
Bilic made changes to the starting line up that featured in Croatia’s two previous games, adopting the formation that saw Croatia improve greatly in the second half against Italy last week. Bilic featured five midfielders with a lone striker, obviously to try and combat the effectiveness of the Spanish midfield. In the opening exchanges of the game it looked to have been working as Croatia were closing down the Spanish side well, which inhibited them getting into their rythm of quick short passing. It is a tiring way to play however, chasing the ball for such long periods of the game and it was this that eventually broke Croatia in the first half, they couldn’t keep up the quick closing down for long and soon Spain found their feet and dominated possession. When Croatia did get the ball back they were unable to play short passes themselves as the Spanish midfield closed down so quickly and the entire Croatian team were too slow to react to gaining possesstion. Croatia did have some chances on the break in the first half however, and there was some slick passing from the Croatian side, however these events weren’t frequent enough, and Croatia never really looked to take advantage of their counter attacks.
If Croatia were unable to play a decent offensive game in the first half they certainly played an exceptional defending one. They refused to allow the quick passing and movement of the Spanish side to create holes in the defence and the only time in the first half that their traditional tight passing saw them carve a chance in the box was from a deflection off a Croatian defender, and Silva was unable to capitalise thanks to a slip in front of goal. The way the defence held themselves was not the only highlight of the impressive defensive display, as Schildenfeld played above expectations and cut out a lot of the through balls that were destined for Torres. The way he dealt with the pace of the Spanish side was somewhat amusing, but effective, he got himself in front of the attacker who was trying to get past him and then fell looking for the foul when contact was made. The 27 year old utilised this tactic against Torres and Silva on a couple of occassions.
The organised manner of Croatia in the first half resulted in the game being even at half time, and whilst Spain had more possession they didn’t have many clear cut chances. As in their last game against Italy Croatia came out at half time the better side, and it was surprising to see Croatia holding a lot of the ball and having spells of possession themselves. It was here that the attacking prowess of Croatia was displayed for all to see, and they were able to carve out some decent chance. The most clear cut chance during this spell fell to Rakitic, as Srna put in a looping, deep cross to the far post and the midfielder found himself unmarked from six yards, but he was unable to convert his header due to poor placement and while Casillas did well to keep it out the header was right at the Spanish goalkeeper. Another chance that was set up by impressive build up play was Perisic’s shot out on the right from fifteen yards as Croatia broke away and exploited the space that resulted from a Spanish corner, Perisic’s shot was on target but once more did not ask enough questions of Casillas, who did not find the attempt too difficult to deal with.
The second half was an even affair, with Spain showcasing just some of the passing game they are renowned for, but they were not as slick and creative in the final third as we are used to. With Croatia knowing that the score in Poznan, in which Italy were beating Ireland, a 0-0 draw would see them go out of the competition, they attacked appropriately but a touch of Spanish class ensured the world champions topped group C as Fabregas dinked a perfectly timed ball over the Croatian defence, finding Iniesta and beating the offside trap, who squared the ball to Navas who finished into an open net. The decisions of the officials during the match may be called into question, as Croatia felt hard done that they were not awarded the decision against Sergio Ramos who showed his studs whilst flying into a tackle on Mario Mandzukic. There were a couple of incidents in the box of each side that probably could have been penalties had the referee seen them, mainly it was climbing and shirt pulling, and really both sides were guilty, however it did seem to be Croatia who missed out on the decisions more significantly than their opponents.
Ultimately Croatia really did not deserve to leave the competiton at this stage and I believe there are teams that have not played as well as Croatia that have secured their place in the quarter finals. It came down to Croatia being unfortunate not to get the decisions from the officials that may have been given on a differnt day, as well as the fact that they were not clinical with the few chances they were able to carve out against the world champions, and ultimately against a team with the quality of Spain chances are few and far between and if you hold any hope of getting a result then you have to finish every clear chance you are able to create.
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