Spain progressed into the elimination stage after a slender 1-0 victory in a game which veered from the sterile to the dramatic. As the score in the Italy versus Ireland match heightened the suspense, both Spain and Croatia knew a single goal could carry them through at their opponent’s expense. Croatia’s passionate football may not have caused Spanish fans’ hearts to enter their mouths, but they were made to beat with an irregular rhythm like their team’s strangely out-of-sorts midfield.
Spain fielded a team unchanged from its 4-0 destruction of Ireland, keeping faith in a reinvigorated Fernando Torres. Croatia set out more cautiously, replacing one of its free-scoring forwards, Everton's Nikica Jelavic, with an extra midfielder in Domagoj Vida. The Croats’ intent was clear. If they were to win the game they would have to stifle the Spanish midfield and hope to conjure a counterattacking chance for Mario Mandzukic functioning as lone striker.
The hardworking Croatian midfield chased the ball like a pack of manic labradoodles eager to repel the Spanish midfield by all means necessary. La Roja were playing in an unfamiliar light blue but their style of play remained distinct. In the first 15 minutes, Spain completed 144 passes compared to Croatia’s 18 as it held on to the ball like a child who does not yet know how to share.
The Spanish were not without their moments of weakness. In the 27th minute, Sergio Ramos was beaten by Mandzukic as he had been by Italy's Mario Balotelli in the opening game. The Real Madrid defender used his recovery pace to tackle back in the penalty area, yet his follow-through upended the Croatian target man. The world’s commentators were given cause to exclaim “I have seen them given” in their various tongues as we waited to see if a penalty would be awarded. Indeed, had the tackle taken place anywhere else on the field, the referee would not have hesitated to call a foul, but because Ramos’ tackle took place in the area, the Croatians received only a corner which Spain dealt with comfortably.
Then news of an Italian goal in the parallel game meant Croatia knew it had to score. It had reason to draw courage. For all of its possession, Spain created few real chances. Central defender Gordon Schildenfeld had outmuscled Torres wherever he ran to blunt Spain’s cutting edge. After this game, rumors of Torres’ sparkling return to form appeared exaggerated. Only Iker Casillas touched the ball less than the Chelsea striker’s 13 touches in the first half. Torres will be braced for a backlash to the backlash to the backlash.
The second half kicked off with a growing sense of excitement as the formerly outrageous prospect of Croatia summoning a goal to eliminate Spain began to feel all too real. The Spanish midfield labored in the final third, unable to manufacture its trademarked crafty pass. The unthinkable almost happened in the 59th minute as a flying Luka Modric burst down the right flank and floated an inviting, deep cross with the outside of his boot. Ivan Rakitic threw himself at the ball, only for Casillas to parry.
With every Croatian raid, their confidence grew. Spain was sufficiently concerned to hook Torres and replace him with Jesus Navas, deciding it was better to go strikerless than with that particular forward. One can only wonder what Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente thought on the Spanish bench, not to mention Cesc Fabregas. At times, it was hard to tell whether the smoke floating across the field came from the Croatian supporters or out of a furious Cesc’s ears on the substitute bench.
Fabregas eventually made an appearance and in the 88th minute he chipped the ball over the Croatian back line, orchestrating a jailbreak for Andres Iniesta and Navas. Croatia will feel that Navas was offside on the play, but the flag stayed down and the substitute was able to smash the ball into the open net from half a yard to kill off the game and Croatia’s hopes of progressing.
Irrespective of the final score, Croatia’s play deserves great respect. The Croats arrived on an erratic run of form only to step up their performance level. In this game, as they have all tournament, they displayed an organization, positivity and courage that will be missed. Euro 2012 will be all the poorer for the absence of their distinctive red-and-white checked jerseys.
Despite the win, and the knowledge it has topped its group at the past four major tournaments, Spain will be concerned that three games in, it is still searching for its strongest starting XI. As the final whistle blew, thousands of England fans would have put the kettle on for their postgame cup of tea and thought to themselves, “We can beat these …” as the prospect of an England versus Spain quarterfinal matchup looms.
Xavi -- the man of the match -- has completed the most passes of any player in the tournament with 327 and is on pace to trump his personal high of 342 achieved at Euro 2008 as well as the tournament's best total since group play began by Germany’s Matthias Sammer, who had 346 at Euro 1996.
CROATIA MAKES THE MOST OF LEAN TIMES
In stark contrast, Croatia managed only 216 passes all game, the fourth-lowest single-game total of the tournament as it enjoyed just 28 percent of possession.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.