Croatia conquers adversity, stuns Spain, changes Euro 2016

By Samuel Charles

Ivan Perisic capped off a magnificent performance in Croatia's comeback win over Spain with a 88th minute goal that won Group D, turning Euro 2016 on its head. The result put five World Cup champions on one side of the bracket, and finds group runner-up Spain facing Italy in the round of 16.

Matchday three had been pretty sleepy through the first six games, with just six goals total, three of them scored by Wales, but Croatia's valiant comeback, with far-sweeping implications, was nothing of the sort.

It's long been said that goals change games, and Perisic's strike from a late counterattack, that beat David De Gea on the near post, could change the fates of several countries, legacies, and even who wins tournament.

Perisic’s goal significantly reduced the chances of Spain winning this tournament, as well as Italy, who is surely unhappy about its next opponent. If Germany progresses to the quarterfinals it will now play the winner of those two -- and if France or England reach the semifinals they will almost certainly be facing the survivor of those three former World Cup champions.

However, four of those teams were already pitted against one another to reach the final, Spain's self-inflicted injury was by far the biggest, while Croatia’s reward is heading to the far easier side of the bracket.

All of this was clear before the game, which is why Spain’s coach Vicente Del Bosque started the same lineup for a third straight game, even with progression assured, attempting to avoid precisely what happened.

Favorites no more? Spain had emerged as tournament favorite, playing well with the lineup that featured six of the 10 outfield players that started the infamous 5-1 loss at World Cup 2014 to the Netherlands: Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique.

Cesc Fabregas, who played as a sub in that infamous defeat, also started all three group games in France.

All seven of those outfield players also started Spain's 4-0 win over Italy in the Euro 2012 final, four them were in the starting lineup in Spain’s 1-0 win over Germany in the Euro 2008 final (Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas and Ramos).

Spain, and Iniesta in particular, were terrific in their first two games, and with La Furia Roja only needing a draw against a Croatia team without its best player, Luka Modric, and Spain holding 1-0 lead after seven minutes, everything seemed to be falling into place for the two-time defending champions.

But Croatia grew into the game throughout the first half, and when Perisic, of Inter Milan, assisted Croatia's beautiful equalizing goal -- by Fiorentina striker Nikola Kalinic just before halftime -- the talented underdogs headed to halftime with tons of confidence.

To the brave go the spoils. In the second half, Spain's lineup of experience and continuity was out-hustled, outworked and outplayed by a Croatian team that rotated five starters (with three on yellows and both Mario Mandzukic and Modric nursing injuries).

Del Bosque saw control slipping away, and went conservative, taking off forward Nolito at the hour mark and inserting Bruno, a defensive midfielder. Spain attempted to use possession to get the draw it needed to win the group, but Spain's success in its first two game came from being more assertive, and this shift only emboldened a Croatian team that also entered the game being assured progression, a team that had already overcome so much adversity.

Croatia's 1-0 win over Turkey in its group opener was followed by news Darijo Srna's father had passed away during the game. Srna returned home for the funeral, joined by Croatia's coach Ante Cacic and others. The second group game saw Croatia give up a two-goal lead in a 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic, one that included flares and minor explosives tossed on the field by Croatian dissidents, who continue to try and sabotage the national team. That behavior led to sanctions, fines and distractions off the field -- and prior to this game, this same group announced several plans to disrupt Tuesday's match, which went unaffected.

Through it all, and down an early goal to the two-time defending European champions, Croatia's players displayed heroic effort, particularly in the second 45 minutes, which now gives Croatia as good as chance as any team on the significantly easier side of the bracket (where Poland, Switzerland, possibly Belgium, and even Wales may now entertain dreams of reaching the final).

"My father's last wish was to continue playing this Euro," said the 34-year-old Srna, Croatia’s longtime captain, after returning from his father’s funeral.

Penalty madness. This was Spain's first loss at a European Championship since 2004, and that streak would probably be alive if Ramos had converted this penalty in the 72nd minute. It should also be said it was a tight decision, one that followed Croatia's shouts for a penalty minutes before.

The Croatian keeper was passed advice prior to the save from the sidelines by Modric, Ramos' Real Madrid teammate, though it's unclear if those instructions included creeping yards off his line.

All told, it felt like a deserved win for Croatia, and perhaps an opportunity lost for Spain, which would've been heavily favored to reach the final and play for a third straight European title -- but now Spain and Italy may have to knock out three other World Cup champions just to reach the final.

Notes. Germany was much improved in Tuesday's 1-0 win over Northern Ireland. The World Cup champions created several good chances, which seemed aided by Joachim Loew starting a traditional striker for the first time at Euro 2016. Mario Gomez may continue in that role, as it was his goal, scored off a layoff by Thomas Mueller (the first assist or goal by Mueller at any Euro).

Albania's win over Romania on Sunday was its first ever at a major tournament, putting it third in Group A. However, with 24 teams, and 16 teams advancing, Albania must wait until Wednesday's results to see if it becomes one of four third-place teams advancing to the knockout rounds -- which means fans, and teams, are forced to make travel and lodging decisions based on several days of uncertainty.

Spain's loss shakes up odds. Belgium, which has progressed but may yet finish third in Group E, and Portugal, which is currently third in Group F, and has yet to progress, both have shorter odds to win this tournament right now than Italy, which won its group after two games, doing so as impressively as any team in this tournament.

4 comments about " Croatia conquers adversity, stuns Spain, changes Euro 2016".
  1. Gus Keri, June 22, 2016 at 9:30 a.m.

    Sam, Belgium has not progressed yet. Their loss to Sweden, coupled with Ireland win, will see them out of the tournament. And imagine this, if Portugal finish second, they will join the bracket of death. and also if Belgium finish third, they might join them too. Amazing tournament.

  2. Samuel Charles replied, June 22, 2016 at 3:05 p.m.

    Thank you Gus. You're exactly right, Belgium has not progressed and could still finish 4th in its group under the scenario you described. Simple one that. My bad! ~ De Gea will rue that 2nd goal, but he's a much better keeper than Casillas at this stage imho (and he's already 25, they have to move on at some point). Iker was truly poor at Porto this season, he was dropped for Helton at season's end, who even started the Cup final. ~ But if Spain go out, Del Bosque may indeed regret it for sentimental reasons, as you say.

  3. Samuel Charles replied, June 22, 2016 at 3:24 p.m.

    ps Iker was dropped in league games for poor performance, but Helton rotated for the cup games.

  4. Gus Keri, June 22, 2016 at 9:33 a.m.

    One more point, I think Del Bosque will regret for ever going against his heart by selecting De Gia ahead of Casillas. De Gia allowing two goals at the near post is not good enough although the first one is a tricky one.

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