Substitute Jesus Navas's goal two minutes before full time gave Spain a 1-0 victory over Croatia on Monday in Gdansk, Poland, sending the reigning champion straight to the Euro 2012 knockout stage as Group C leader.
A draw combined with a convenient result from the Italy-Ireland game could have secured a spot in the quarter-finals for both teams, but neither side jumped on the field with a tie in their minds.
The champions came out with their usual tiki-taka style of play, controlling the ball and frustrating their opponents with short precise passes.
La Roja (this time wearing the blue kit) quickly populated the middle of the field, forcing Croatia to follow the ball and play a defensive but aggressive game.
Despite Spain’s ball dominance throughout the first half, few plays in attack threatened Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
The Spanish midfield showed clear superiority, keeping Croatia away from the ball. Barcelona stars Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez connected perfectly with Manchester City’s David Silva on the side.
However, none of these three incredible playmakers could get the ball to striker Fernando Torres, whose chances on goal were limited and caused no danger to Pletikosa.
Spain’s game moved on to the second 45 minutes with plenty of touches but limited goal opportunities.
The Croatian squad switched to a more physical game, with players aggressively pushing for possession. And the game plan almost gave the underdogs an immediate result.
Ivan Rakitic's point-blank header after a cross from the left side couldn’t beat Spanish keeper Iker Casillas, who saved his team from possible elimination.
The charge by Croatia and Torres’s inability to connect with teammates forced Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque to substitute the Chelsea player for winger Jesus Navas early in the half.
With Navas on the field, the Spaniards went from a slow-paced passing game plan to a more attack-driven style, turning the game into a back-and-forth dispute in which both teams went at each other with all their offensive tools.
But when such tools come into play, it’s difficult to find a better team than the reigning world champions.
Del Bosque’s lineup tweak worked out perfectly and, two minutes before full time, substitute Navas crushed Croatia’s hopes of qualification.
With both squads on attack-mode, Spain caught the Croatian defensive line off guard after a dazzling bunch of perfect passes.
Iniesta found himself alone in the area with Navas to his right, and the gifted midfielder did not hesitate, setting up Navas for an easy goal that put the final nail in Croatia’s coffin.
What this result means
- Spain advances first in Group C with two victories and a draw. Del Bosque’s team finished ahead of Italy, which beat Ireland 2-0 on Monday. Both teams have to wait until Tuesday’s results to know their quarter-final opponents.
The winning goal
- Torres could not crack Croatia’s defence — in fact, the Spaniard striker barely touched the ball. But the situation went from negative to positive as soon as Navas entered the game. The fast winger complemented an already impressive middle of the field that would ultimately overwhelm the Croatian defensive wall with a surgical play that Navas himself sent to the back of the net.
Man of the match
- Midfielder Iniesta has had an impressive Euro so far and the game against Croatia was no different. Barcelona’s playmaker controlled the midfield, led a group full of talented players and provided the assist for the goal. Goalkeeper Casillas deserves as much credit after saving his team early in the second half and preserving the draw for Spain.
The Spanish perspective
- "We made a great step forward. We qualified. That's what motivates us for the quarterfinal. Our philosophy and style of play are good and we proved it in today's match. The team played well even though the match didn't go as we planned." — Coach Vicente Del Bosque.
The Croatian perspective
- "We were trying to neutralize their game, I think they had a really hard time." — Coach Slaven Bilic.