x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Euro 2012: Croatia 0 Spain 1

No worries of any dirty dealings here: Spain rides a goal from Jesus Navas late to leave the first round as winners of Group C.

Even six Croatian players were able to do little to slow Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta, centre, though Spain only scored once, thanks to Jesus Navas.
Even six Croatian players were able to do little to slow Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta, centre, though Spain only scored once, thanks to Jesus Navas.

GDANSK, POLAND // In the end there were no complication, no dirty pact between Spain and Croatia to ensure mutual qualification, only an inelegant, unconvincing win. The holders are still alive in this tournament, their dream of a 'triplete de leyenda' of Euro, World Cup, Euro likewise.

This did not, though, look healthy.

The Spaniards escaped two serious penalty claims, a point-blank Croat header, and a horribly nervous final half-hour.

The familiar elan which had annihilated Ireland at the weekend was sadly gone. This was back to the frustrations of Italy's smother-and-counter tactics. Another night when the favourites looked for excuses in a slow, unwatered pitch.

Their goal, from substitute Jesus Navas, came late, as red-bedecked supporters pulled faces of grand anxiety.

Though Spain head now to Donetsk to try to pass their way past the runners up of Ukraine, France and England's Group D, the doubts are back.

Humility and respect are important words around the Spanish camp. The former is inscribed in large letters at their Gniewino training, a declaration of one of the traits essential to becoming champions. The latter is mentioned every time Vicente Del Bosque speaks in public. Respect the opposition or this could all come crashing to a halt is the coach's warning.

Such respect was there in the fielding of an unchanged eleven against the Croats, there would be no attempt to conserve energy and avoid potential suspensions with the knockout rounds in mind. Del Bosque wanted to ensure Spain were in them as Group C winners.

Croatia's major change was tactical. Nikica Jelavic was withdrawn to allow Danijel Pranjic in as an additional midfielder. Darijo Srna pushed forward to right wing, Ivan Strinic moved over to left side of defence, and Domagoj Vida came in on the right. Their attitude to the section's decisive fixture was one of self-belief.

"Messi is not the same for Argentina as for Barcelona, or Ronaldo for Portugal as for Real Madrid," said Srna. "Croatian players play even better for national team than for the clubs. Croatia is a small country but we have a big character, we fight until the end."

That scrapper's attitude meant there was no prospect of the Croats permitting a pitch baked by the warmest day of the Gdansk summer to be watered in the hour before kick-off as Spain fervently wanted. The holders' obsession with the speed of the turf could be witnessed in Xavi and Andres Iniesta's march down the tunnel to inspect it as soon as they arrived.

By Spain's own stellar standards, the passing was laboured, unexpected errors scattered around.

Under no pressure, Xabi Alonso let a square ball run under his boot, casting a rueful look at the turf. Pinned into their penalty area, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba made three consecutive attempts at nervy clearances. One Croat supporter forced the referee to add his own break to play, throwing a flare within smoke obscuring distance of Iker Cassilas's net.

First-half opportunities to test Stipe Pletikosa were intermittent, and of limited threat. Croatia focused on their defensive block and counterattacks, yet could have had a penalty when Ramos was caught in possession, raced back to recover it, and did so only by flinging his studs into ball then Mario Mandzukic.

A less tolerant referee would have pointed to the spot and disciplined the centre-back. Wolfgang Stark blew for a corner and booked Vedran Corluka for his protests as Mandzukic writhed in pain.

On the hour mark there was further frustration. Luka Modric sent Ivan Rakitic behind the holders' back four with the outside of his right boot. The midfielder's header was close-range and firm but Casillas blocked away.

Concerned about Spain's inefficiency, Del Bosque swapped Fernando Torres for Navas, adding width on the right wing at the cost of a number nine. Cesc Fabregas soon joined as the false one. Needing a goal to escape elimination, Slaven Bilic responded with Jelavic and a switch to 4-4-2.

In the closing minutes. Corluka headed across goal from six yards, his shirt all but torn from his frame by Sergio Busquets. Again no whistle. On Spain's next attack, Fabregas lobbed Iniesta beyond Croatia's offside trap, where he squared for Navas to give Spain their victory. This one was far from deserved.

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