They are dark horses no more. They have been outed. It’s official. Croatia have arrived. They did what no team had done at the Euros since Portugal in 2004 – they beat Spain. Not only that, but in doing so, they did themselves a huge favour by winning their group and consigning Spain to second place. This means it is Spain who will be playing Italy in the last 16, a repeat of the 2012 final, while Croatia as group winners should – in theory – have an easier tie against a so far poor-looking Portugal.
Incredibly, the team Croatia fielded wasn’t even their first team. The manager, Ante Cacic, made 5 changes, with both key midfielder Luka Modric and striker Mario Mandzukic sidelined through injury. No surprise perhaps as Croatia only needed a point to secure second place, and with Turkey winning against the Czech Republic, even that wasn’t ultimately necessary. However, thankfully neither side seemed interested in settling prosaically for a draw and proceeded to serve up a thriller.
When Spain scored after only 8 minutes, it seemed business as usual. But Croatia showed that they had strength in depth by not capitulating with their second string side, but daring to press the Spanish higher up, and they got their just reward when a cross from their flying left winger Ivan Perisic was converted by Nikola Kalinic just before half time. Though Croatia were unlucky in the second half to concede a tame penalty, justice was swiftly done when their goalkeeper was allowed to get away with standing 3 yards off his line to save the penalty. But there was no settling for a draw. Maybe the Croatians really didn’t fancy playing the Italians so early in knockout stages, or they wanted to redeem themselves for letting slip a 2 goal lead against the Czechs, but Croatia were looking for the kill. Inevitably, it was Ivan Perisic, who has been the Croatian player who has caught the eye so far, who got on the end of a counter attack in the 87th minute and fired the ball past De Gea’s near post for the winner. Cue delirious celebrations as Croatia plonked themselves on top of the pile and on the easier side of the R16 draw.
There were also delirious celebrations in Northern Ireland as Turkey’s defeat of the Czech Republic meant Northern Ireland qualified as one of the 3rd placed teams. Their reward: a R16 match against Wales. Which guarantees one home nation a place in the quarter final. And with Spain playing Italy (thank you, Croatia), it guarantees one of the big guns will be on a early flight home.