Croatia was one Ivan Rakitić header away from not only clinching a spot in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, but dethroning the current Euro and World Cup champions, Spain, all in the blink of an eye. With Italy expected to win against the Irish, Croatia knew they needed a result and had to play a near flawless game against the Spaniards to do so.
The Vatreni held their ground and disabled Spain's flowing ball movement in midfield for the entire first half, applying proper pressure and holding a high line. When balls were played down the flanks and through the middle, it was always met with discipline and physicality. With coach Slaven Bilić starting the match with only one striker in Mario Mandžukić, we can assume that he was ecstatic with the 0-0 halftime score line.
It was then in the 59th minute that Luka Modrić broke free down field and created the best chance of the game (for either team) as he whipped in a cross to a wide open and streaking Ivan Rakitić on the back post. The Sevilla man connected with the header but Real Madrid goalie Iker Casillas made an amazing save to keep the game scoreless. Many have already blamed Rakitić for not doing better on the chance but you have to credit Casillas as well. If he scores on the play, Croatia is surely packing their bags for a quarterfinal tie instead of debriefing before vacation. Bilić would bring in some firepower in the 66' with Nikica Jelavić and Ivan Perišić coming off the bench, but it just would not be.
Vedran Ćorluka was pulled down in the box with no penalty call and Perišić couldn't do better with an open long-range shot on goal. Spain would score in the dying minutes without a response and Croatia would be sent home, on the highest of notes. The team should be proud of their play and know that they hung with the world's best all the way to the end. The confidence this group of players gained from this tournament should translate into big wins during World Cup 2014 qualifying, which starts in September.
Can we finally set concrete expectations for this group of Croatian players after their performance at Euro 2012?
Written by Ante Kvartuč, CroatianSports.com