Spain “did the important thing” by going through to the last eight of the European Championship as Group C winners on a nervy night against Croatia, Xabi Alonso has said.
Vicente del Bosque’s below-par team needed a controversial late goal by Jesus Navas to see off the Croats - who missed a golden chance with the score at 0-0 - and eliminate them from the competition in Gdansk. Both Spain and Italy, who beat group whipping boys Ireland 2-0 in the night's other game, could have gone out of the competition had they conceded a late goal, but both made it through.
Midfielder Alonso admitted: “We knew it wasn't going to be easy, because Croatia are a good team and had chances to go through. We managed to keep a clean sheet despite their efforts and, at the end of the day, the goal calmed our nerves. Clearly, the important thing was to advance as group winners.”
Alonso - part of a team attempting to become the first to win three international tournaments in a row - said Spain had "achieved great things in the not-so-distant past, but we also struggled a lot - you cannot forget that." He added: "It'll definitely be another hard task [to win Euro 2012].”
Things, however, could have been very different had Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic converted a golden chance to put Slaven Bilic’s team ahead on the hour. The Sevilla player was unmarked when Luka Modric curled a superb ball into the penalty area - but his header was too close to Iker Casillas, allowing the Spain goalkeeper to make the save.
Rakitic admitted he would “probably have sleepless nights” thinking about that moment and said: “I did not manage to take the chance that came my way.
“It was obvious that we gave everything on the pitch - we gave it our best shot. I can honestly say that my soul was left on that pitch. I think I need a few people to carry me off the pitch because I am literally dead.”
His team-mate Ognjen Vukojevic added: “We will regret missing Rakitic's chance. If we had scored that, I think it would have changed the course of the game. But we are going back home with our heads held high.”
Casillas admitted his team had been fortunate to secure their late victory, adding: “It felt like a weight off our shoulders. I was lucky in one situation that could have put us in trouble, but I am happy the team managed to qualify for the next round.”