Friday, June 07, 2024

The Greatest Euro Matches: Spain-Croatia (2021)

Many things were special about the Euro 2020: first of all, it did not take place in 2020. Due to the global Covid pandemic of 2020 the tournament had to be postponed to 2021. Secondly, UEFA had decided that not one nation would host the tournament, but instead the tournament was to be hosted by 11 cities in 11 different countries. Even though the pandemic was in its wane, this caused enormous logistical problems as many countries still had restrictions about travel and assembly. It was a mess, but a mess with a lot of memorable football. 

24 countries participated, and two of the greatest, Spain and Croatia, gave us a memorable match in Copenhagen. 

Spain entered the country as favourites as always. Most of the players from their legendary 2008, 2010 and 2012 side were out, but one remained namely the captain from Barcelona, Sergio Busquets, who had played in 2010 and 2012. That said, the team counted a long list of experienced veterans and highly talented youngsters: Manchester United’s David de Gea guarded the goal with Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta providing defensive coverage alongside Barcelona’s veteran Jordi Alba, and Aymeric Laporte and Eric Garcia, both from Manchester City. In midfield alongside Busquets was the veteran Koke from Atletico Madrid, Thiago from Liverpool, and some hugely talented youngsters in Rodri and Ferran Torres from Manchester City and Dani Olmo from RB Leipzig. Attacking power appeared not to be as awesome but they had the young Pedri from FC Barcelona, alongside more experienced Alvaro Morata from Juventus and Gerard Moreno from Villarreal. In a side with so much talent from some of Europe’s best clubs, it was notable that there was not a signle player from Real Madrid for thge first time ever, something that the Manager, and ex-Barcelona player and manager Luis Enrique, was highly criticised for. 

Spain had appeared strong in qualification, winning their relatively easy group ahead of Sweden, Norway, Romania, Faroe Islands and Malta. Despite all the criticism they were a team to count on, and most people expected them to win their first round group to be played against Sweden, Poland and Slovakia. 

But Spain did not look good at home in Seville and it appeared that Luis Enrique struggled with setting a team in the first two matches when they tied Sweden and Poland 0-0 and 1-1 respectively. Only in the last match did they oipen the floodgates when winning 5-0 against Slovakia, but this only put them in second spot behind Sweden, meaning that they would be going to Copenhagen to face Croatia. 

The Croatian side that had come second in the 2018 World Cup  was still a powerful but ageing side. The captain was the great Luca Modric from Real Madrid, who nevertheless was not always up for a full match. And although the great Ivan Rakitic was no longer part of the squad, the midfield was still awesome with players like Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic from Inter, Mateo Kovacic from Chelsea, and Mario Pasalic from Atalanta. Defense was also solid with Dejan Lovren from Zenit St. Petersburg, Sime Vrsaljko from Atletico Madrid, Duje Caleta-Car from Marseille, Domagoj Vida from Besiktas and a young Josko Gvuardiol from Dinamo Zagreb. In attack the side counted players like Ante Rebic from AC Milan and Andrej Kramaric from Hoffenheim. 

Croatia had qualified first in their group ahead of Wales, Slovakia, Hungary and Azerbaijan, and had landed in a group with England, Czechia and Scotland, where they had not impressed: after losing 0-1 to England they had gone on to tie Czechia 1-1 and then a 3-1 victory over Scotland was good enough to make them runners-up behind the English, which put them face to face with Spain in Copenhagen. 

Neither side had impressed in the first round, going through only on their last match, so both managers started with similar lineups as in their last group matches. 

It was splendid match between two different, but equally splendid, sides. 

The first 19 minutes were all Spain with Croatia struggling to keep the Spaniards away, and Koke should likely have brought the Spaniards ahead. Instead, in the 19th minute, one of the weirdest drops in Euroean championship history happened. Croatia had hardly had a shot on goal, but Pedri made a pass back to goalkeeper Unai Simon, who totally missed an easy ball, which passed him and went into goal... 

 0-1 for Croatia, and the Spaniards were shaken as a confident Croatian side pushed forward and Vlasic and Kovasic had good chances for a second. That said, Spain slowly worked themselves back into the match and managed to again pressure the Croatians. In the 37th minute a string of shots and saves by goalkeeper Livakovic ended with PSGs Pablo Sarabia who equalised for Spain. 

Second half started with a new round of Spanish pressure, although a bit more careful. That said, it resulted in 2-1 when Cesar Azpilicueta scored his first goal for Spain on a header after a good center pass from Ferran Torres. The match flowed a bit more, and Croatia also had some chances, specially one where Unai Simon made a spectacular save, forgiving his mistake at the first half. But it was Spain that would not forgive: a long pass towards Ferran Torres, who rounded a young Gvuardiol and placed the ball perfectly behind Livakovic. 

3-1 Spain. 15 minutes to go. Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic put Ante Budimir on for Kovacic, and Matio Pasalic on for Vlasic. And then we all know that Croatia is never beaten! 

Croatians not only fight to the end, but they are also gifted footballers. They managed to put pressure on a Spain side that never really looked too strong in defense, and in the 85th minute it was the Dynamo Zagreb striker Mislav Orsic, who had come on for Rebic, who brought the score to 2-3 in a messy situation in the penalty box. 

Spain then got nervous while a hard-fighting Croatia got confident. Two minutes into added time Atalanta’s Pasalic made a perfect header from a perfect pass to make it 3-3, and extra time of an epic match. 

Croatia had a couple of good chances early in extra time, but while both sides were clearly tired after a fantastic fight, it seemed that the Spaniard’s technique might be their advantage. And so it was when Alvaro Morata scored a great goal for Spain: he perfectly controlled a difficult ball in the area and shot the ball into the near top corner of goal from a tight angle. It was a relief for the Spaniards as Morata had been highly criticised during the tournament, but this goal showed his quality. 

Three minutes later the Real Sociedad striker Mikel Oyarzabal, who had come on for Ferran Torres, made it 5-3. 

It was in reality the end, although the heroic Croatians pushed forward as much as they could, and the Spaniards defended with the last of their strength. All in all, it was one of these splendid matches that have a bit of everything: mistakes, fantastic technique, heroic fights and a fair result. 

Croatia left the tournament with their heads held high (but surely knowing them, they were disappointed), while Spain went to the quarterfinals. They were to be considered one of the favourites, but after defeating Switzerland on penalty kicks, they went on to lose on penalty kicks as well to the later champions of Italy in the semifinals  

Copenhagen, June 28th, 2021, Parken 
Attendance: 22,771 
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir, Turkey 

Spain-Croatia 5-3 

Spain: Unai Simon; Eric Garcia (Pau Torres, 71), Aymeric Laporte, Cesar Azpilicueta, Jose Gaya (Jordi Alba, 77); Sergio Busquets (c) (Rodri, 101), Koke (Fabian Ruiz, 77), Pedri; Alvaro Morata, Pablo Sarabia (Dani Olmo, 71), Ferran Torres (Mikel Oyarzabal, 88). Manager: Luis Enrique
Croatia: Dominik Livakovic; Domagoj Vida, Duje Caleta-Car, Josko Gvardiol, Josip Juranovic (Josip Brekalo, 74); Marcelo Brozovic, Luka Modric (Luka Ivanusec, 114), Mateo Kovacic (Ante Budimir, 79); Bruno Petkovic (Andrej Kramaric, 46), Nikola Vlasic (Mario Pasalic, 79), Ante Rebic (Mislav Orsic, 67). Manager: Zlatko Dalic 

0-1 Pedri (OG) (20) 
1-1 Pablo Sarabia (38)
2-1 Cesar Azpilicueta (57)
3-1 Ferran Torres (77)
3-2 Mislav Orsic (85)
3-3 Mario Pasalic (92)
4-3 Alvaro Morata (100)
5-3 Mikel Oyarzabal (103)

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