Spain woken from false dawn

Ireland result put into perspective by fortunate escape against Croatia

Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas saves a header by Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic in the Gdansk Arena.
Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas saves a header by Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic in the Gdansk Arena. PATRIK STOLLARZ (AFP)

Euphoria following Spain’s 4-0 defeat of Ireland was short-lived as Vicente del Bosque’s side was put through the ringer by an accomplished Croatia team on Monday, narrowly winning through to the quarterfinals after 88 minutes of ineffectual possession play. Jesús Navas, from a marginally offside position, thrashed home from a couple of yards two minutes from time to seal a 1-0 victory — but Spain failed to convince with its patented approach play as was the case previously against Italy.

There was plenty of speculation — both within and outside the Spain camp — before the tournament that opposition teams would tailor their approach to stymie La Roja’s intricate passing style, and so it proved when Croatia coach Slaven Bilic unleashed his counter-measures. “The game plan was to thwart Spain in the first half and have a go at them in the second,” the former West Ham and Everton defender said of his final game in charge of his national team. “It worked. We did everything right except score. We came here to go all the way and we failed because we lacked that tiny bit of luck that makes all the difference.”

Spain enjoyed the rub of the green against a limited Irish side and plaudits were swift after a convincing 4-0 victory; with an early goal under its belt Spain is a different beast. However, there was a palpable sense of relief after Croatia was dismissed, not least because Bilic’s well-drilled side largely deserved to win the game; a result that would have seen the defending champion on the next flight home.

Iker Casillas was once again the hero of the hour, embellishing further his reputation as the finest shot stopper in the world with a reaction, point-blank save from Sevilla midfielder Ivan Rakitic in the second period.

“Croatia were well prepared to face us. They made it very difficult for us to create chances [and] they defended very well. In the end we were lucky, playing our one-touch football and scoring late on. It felt like a weight off our shoulders,” the Spain captain told Uefa.com.

Perhaps expectations are so high now that people will never be satisfied”

The concern for Spain is that, after four years of adherence to its tiki-taka stylings, there is no plan B for when a well set-up side like Croatia smothers its attacking intent. Despite creating plenty of chances, there is reluctance among the Spanish ranks to take responsibility for a shot. It is possible to walk the ball into the net against inferior sides like Ireland but a more direct approach was required on Monday and Spain seems unwilling, or unable, to change its blueprint.

Fernando Llorente would have provided a target for Xavi Hernández’s frequent corners, which were hardly likely to find the heads of the bajitos under the challenge of an altitudinous back line.

Spain’s tactic of pressuring high up the field also created many opportunities for Croatia to break, prompting Bilic to field three strikers in the second half. A side such as France or Germany, with more illustrious resources, will exploit any such spaces with relish.

Not since a 3-0 drubbing of a silken Russia side in 2008 has Spain beaten any team by more than a single goal during the knock-out stage of a major tournament, so Del Bosque’s side is merely maintaining its competitive contour. However, it will soon come up against a team capable of more goal-mouth predation than Croatia, and Spain cannot rely on the unflappable Casillas to keep everything out. At some point, possession must be made to count for numbers on the score sheet, not just the statistician’s record.

“Perhaps expectations are so high now that people will never be satisfied,” noted Del Bosque after the match. “We have gone from poor to rich so quickly that maybe people don't value what they have. We appear to be in a period of extremism, of either good or bad, and there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Football will decide and put us where we deserve to be.”

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