Euro 2012 has been a tournament blessed with goals in every match so far, but if ever the thrills of the group stage could throw up a goalless draw, this looked like the occasion: a game played at half speed until its last few seconds eventually supplied a strike that registered as a genuine surprise. It seemed almost converse to Spain’s plan of action. Croatia had found a way to break up its play, that teasing rondo style that has won Spain such glory.
Spain was unusually deficient and played in a shell, never hitting either the rhythm it displayed against the hapless Irish or the strangulating possession that has frustrated better teams to distraction.
Shooting at goal from distance seems almost anathema to manager Vicente Del Bosque’s team. A seeming aversion to "having a dig" makes even Barcelona look like pot-shot merchants. And once a striker is abandoned, as happened early in the second half when Fernando Torres was removed for winger Jesus Navas, then Spain was never going to pepper Stipe Pletikosa’s goal. Yet it won. It still knows how to get the job done.
“It was a very difficult victory,” admitted Del Bosque. “We defended and we also suffered. They had 17 shots on goal, but we had more corners and higher ball possession.”
Croatia did look the more dangerous side for several phases of play. This was not a persuasive advert for Spain’s defense of its title even though the job of winning Group C was eventually done.
At times, it rather resembled a friendly game; there was a definite air of détente. The atmosphere on the streets of Gdansk, Sopot and Gydnia had been convivial; fans of both Croatia and Spain greeting each other warmly and usually making the same gesture. Two fingers from each hand signified the desired score line -- 2-2 -- that would allow both teams to make their way to Ukraine for the quarterfinals at the expense of Italy.
Could this be a repeat of the heavily suspected -- in Italy at least -- Scandi-pact of Denmark and Sweden at Euro 2004? Or a Mediterranean version of the footballing anschluss that Germany and Austria played out at the 1982 World Cup? Giovanni Trapattoni, whose Ireland team could make sure that the Italians could not even cry "fix," had suggested that events in Gdansk needed to be placed under close monitor from UEFA. But it did not come to pass. Four goals were never going to be scored in this game.
Many fans had been late in arriving because of direct action by local construction workers that saw bulldozers block a key road to the PGE Arena. That lent itself to an unhurried start. It was as if a signal from Poznan, where Italy had to beat the Irish, was being awaited. Should anything not occur then there seemed to be no sense in stirring things up unnecessarily. When news came that the Italians had scored, there was action among Croatia’s fans, and a sense of urgency finally appeared.
Croatia suffered first-half injustice when Sergio Ramos clearly caught Mario Mandzukic in the penalty area after the lone striker had played the ball. Greece’s missed spot-kick in the opener remains the only awarded penalty at Euro 2012, amid plenty of genuine claims.
Ramos provided Spain’s first real shot in anger in the 24th minute. It was a long time coming and, as in Spain's opening match here, the issue of watering the pitch came into play. A day of dry heat in Gdansk meant this was a surface without the zip that heavy rain provided the Spanish for their dissolution of Ireland.
Spain remained circumspect as the second half progressed into its latter stages, and could have paid the price. Luka Modric put in his own claim in his phony rivalry with Xavi by carving a chance, with the outside of his boot, that Ivan Rakitic met. Iker Casillas could only claw it away, and the rebound took time to be cleared. Had Croatia scored then Spain would have followed Netherlands out of the competition, both World Cup finalists perishing on successive evenings.
Fernando Torres was soon sacrificed, but not for Fernando Llorente; instead it was winger Navas who came on. No recognized center forward and a winger? This was yet more unorthodox stuff from Del Bosque. The 4-6-0 experiment had another addition to its artifice. Problem being it did not make Spain play any better. Cesc Fabregas came on for David Silva only to dither over a chance to have his team’s first shot on goal for some time. He repeated the same trick a minute later. Spain did not even look as if it wanted to score. It did not need to, but it would have been nice if it looked interested in doing so. Such profligacy may yet cost La Roja.
Instead, Croatia exhibited the more danger. Nikica Jelavic was thrown on by coach Slaven Bilic. Soon after, so was Eduardo. A goal now would secure first place. A shot from another sub in Ivan Perisic had Casillas working hard once more. Gerard Pique was suddenly to be found berating colleagues. Was Spain to pay for looking so sloppy?
Vedran Corluka headed over with Casillas straining for the ball. The shock looked ever more possible, but then Spain scored. It was not against the run of play, but it was hardly in keeping with what had gone previously. Xavi awoke from a jaded evening to thread in Andres Iniesta, and his Barcelona colleague slotted the ball across Stipe Pletikosa for Navas to score.
Mario Balotelli’s goal in Poznan made matters academic for Croatia despite Bilic’s exhortations from the sideline in his last game before heading for Lokomotiv Moscow. Spain could then play the possession game that has made it so successful. It could now pass it around with its usual calm, but it knew it had been tested. Croatia had proved La Roja can be got at.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Luka Modric. In the battle with Xavi, he was the victor, and at the center of almost all of Croatia’s raids on a well-worked Spanish back line. His creation of Rakitic’s chance was the best play of the match.
CROATIA VERDICT: “Our group was really difficult but we played really well in all three matches,” said Bilic, and he was correct. Ireland perhaps made the Croatians look better than they were but they were a highly difficult opponent for the Spanish. In the end, they were a little unlucky to go out.
SPAIN VERDICT: The machine does not look as well-oiled as it once did. Xavi looked tired, and Iniesta somewhat distant on the wings. Still, that pair conjured the winner to confirm that their class is still highly present.© ESPN