Croatia delivered a message of intent for England with a win over Spain which leaves open the chance of them relegating Gareth Southgate’s side to the Nations League second tier, if they can repeat the achievement at Wembley on Sunday. They promised something akin to their World Cup performance levels and did not disappoint.
The result also means that England can win the Nations League group if they beat the side who broke their hearts in the World Cup semi-final in Moscow. But they will need to be at their best in Wembley’s winner-takes-all match.
It was the first time Croatia had played in front of their supporters since the World Cup and they, like England, were saying farewell to servants. Under little fanfare Mario Mandzukic, Vedran Corluka and Danijel Subasic were presented to a capacity 3,000 crowd, said their farewells, received framed photographs and were gone.
The beating heart of this summer’s team remains intact though. Luka Modric said before the game that progressing beyond England to the final had left the team ‘empty, physically and emotionally’, explaining the 6-0 defeat to Spain in the earlier fixture. They found some charge this time.
Modric and Ivan Rakitic influenced the game in the old way as Croatia dominated the game’s early stages and twice came close to scoring in the first ten minutes. Rakitic sent a ball down the left six minutes in which Ivan Perisic gathered, cut into the box to fire a low shot against the base of the left post.
Perisic also laid the ball aside for Ante Rebic to shoot narrowly wide through a crowded area.
Croatia looked the more naturally gifted of the sides; less mechanical than the Spanish who did begin to command long periods of possession towards the end of the first half, without making them count.
Zlatko Dalic’s players took the lead when a poor attempt to clip a pass out of defence by Sergio Ramos was intercepted by Perisic, whose header sent the ball into the path of Andrej Kramaric – the former Leicester City striker now at Hoffenheim – who drove the ball home.
Spain were level within two minutes when smart, one-touch passing move down the Spanish inside left channel culminated in Dani Ceballos sliding home Isco’s square ball.
But Croatia threatened again. Rakitic drove beyond three Spanish defenders in one move, slicing his shot beyond de Gea’s near post.
The golden touch of Modric ensured that Croatia, fighting to restore the hit to the pride they took in Elche in September, went back ahead. An immaculately measured cross from the left was sent through 20 yards and onto the head of Tin Redvaj, who had been criminally overlooked by the Spanish defence and headed home.
Croatia ought to have had the game out of sight when Kramaric was sent through on goal on the breakaway. De Gea narrowed the angle and was able to palm the ball away.
Spain found a second equaliser which was hard on Croatia. Right back Sime Vrasalko was adjudged to have handled in the area and Ramos slotted home the penalty kick.
Spain threw caution to the wind, seemingly intent on finishing the game and winning this Nations League group themselves, but Croatia seized on the space this allowed them.
Another fine run from Kramaric ended with a blocked shot and a last ditch challenge from Ramos was needed to prevent Perisic finishing too. Then, at the death, the goal that had been threatened all along.
Tin Jedvaj’s cross from the right was sailing out of play until Perisic recovered it and fed substitute Josip Brekalo, who surged through the opposition defence and crossed for Devaj to shoot. De Gea was helpless this time.
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Author: Moses Echodu
Moses is a freelance writer for Newslibre and Programs Associate at the Uganda Child Cancer Foundation. He loves writing about sports, politics and news around the globe and Inspiring new young people!!