Man of the Match
None of the Spanish attackers will remember this as their finest night, although the introductions of Cesc Fabregas and Jesus Navas did alter the look and pace; so they can feel OK about things. But the glue to it all was Xabi Alonso, whose calm passing and positioning was emblematic of Spain’s overall night, one that wasn’t brilliant and dynamic, but one that patiently, reliably got the job done.
Packaged for take-away
- Credit to Croatia, which came in with a plan, executed admirably, ran and worked and did cook up some chances after the break. The real man of the match, for those who like to hand the honor to the best performance, win, lose or draw, was Croatian center back Gordon Schildenfeld. His was a master class in defense.
- Once again, no Fabregas in Spain’s starting lineup, even if the Barca man had two goals in the team’s first pair of matches. Once again, he came on to make a difference, putting two teammates through with his cutesy chipped pass over the Croatian back line.
- Thank heavens there was no 2-2 draw here, a result that would have seen both teams through – and surely a result that would have sent the conspiracy theorists worldwide into a Code Red tizzy. But, really, how exactly would two teams concoct such a thing? Who would dare to make that approach? And who would dare pass the word through the locker room? It’s all so silly.
- After almost 20 minutes, the stats said Spain had 78 percent of the possession, which wasn’t a bit difficult to believe.
- Croatian playmaker Luka Modric, as you would expect, had his moments and was typically tidy on the ball. He just didn’t see it enough, especially before the break.
- Croatia’s alleged 4-2-3-1 wasn’t much of one. It worked out as more of a 4-4-1-1. At times, veteran right-side man Darijo Srna (playing the more advanced role in this one) dropped so far back to assist with Andres Iniesta (who was lined up in his usual spot as a nominal left wing) that it almost looked like a five-man Croatian back line.
- No real mystery to Croatia’s plan for the first half: hit something forward to lone striker Mario Mandžukić and presumably let Modric attempt to catch up. Only it didn’t really work that way because Modric was usually working to help break up the Spanish symphony of midfield passing, so he was usually not connected closely enough with Mandzukic. A little half chance here and there was about all Croatia had in the first half hour. But, really, it’s probably more than Spain had despite all the (very predictable) possession.
- Going the other way, Croatia’s honored the defensive plan we see so often against Barca and Spain these days: Stay narrow. Very, very narrow. It worked even better than usual because left back Jordi Alba and right back Álvaro Arbeloa were less inclined to burst forward, cozy in the knowledge that a tie would see Spain safely through to the quarters. So, 0-0 at the break was fine for Croatia.
- Sergio Ramos probably needed a talking to from the Spanish staff about his lunging, ill-advised 27th minute challenge on Mandžukić (which left the Croatian target man on the ground with a knock on his foot). Ramos made a lot of contact with the Croatian forward’s foot, and maybe just a little contact with the ball. What was he thinking?
- Spanish right-sided forward David Silva started to identify the angles and locate the creases around Croatia’s rock-solid center backs, especially Schildenfeld. The Eintracht Frankfurt man was always astutely positioned and sure in the tackle. Still, Silva was creeping closer and closer to making something happen.
- The tiki tiki or tiki taka or whatever you call it is always something of a wonder to behold. But since we’ve seen it so often, and since the Spanish side of things was utterly devoid first-half desperation, the opening 45-minute spell was a snoozer.
- Drama did begin to leak into the night after intermission, however, because one Croatian goal could have turned the tournament on its ears. To wit: things nearly got crazy-interesting in the 59th minute as a wonderful outside-of-the-foot ball from Modric found a streaking Ivan Rakitić at the far post. Spain’s Iker Casillas rose and reacted like the world class keeper he is to deny the Sevilla man’s header from six yards. It was a massive moment, because had that been the game’s only goal, mighty Spain would have tumbled right out of the tournament. Unthinkable, eh?
- Navas’ introduction for Spain with 30 minutes remaining added something different, a truer wide presence along the right.
- Fernando Torres? He made something happen here and there with a wide run early. But then after about 15 minutes – meh.
- In some moments, especially between the 70th and 80th minutes, Spanish attackers needed a little more penalty area gumption, deferring on shooting opportunities, looking for the “final, final, final” pass rather than simply the final pass and the doggone shot.
- Spain did finally get the 88th minute goal that took the heat out of Monday’s match. Andres Iniesta’s shoulder and perhaps his head may have been a smidge offside, and he may have even used his upper arm to control Fabregas’ delicately chipped pass. Either way, Spain was going through unless Croatia could score.
- It was decidedly less-than-dominant Monday, but Spain is nonetheless 16-0-1 in its last 17 competitive contests.
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