Croatia’s win over Spain in Bordeaux on Tuesday night was significant, not least because it sends Spain into the side of the knockout draw that contains Italy, Germany and England while Croatia start with the more benign route of playing a third-placed side in the last-16.
This was a statement from Croatia, who showed they could beat the defending champions despite falling behind after 6 minutes. Spain controlled possession as they usually do but Croatia more than competed, refusing to buckle after the early goal from Alvaro Morata highlighted Spain at their bewitching best, or even when Sergio Ramos stepped up to take a penalty with 20 minutes to go.
Ramos saw that penalty, albeit controversially, saved by Danijel Subasic and it smacked of justice being served. Had it gone in it would have been severely harsh on Croatia, not only because there was little contact by Sime Vrsaljko on David Silva in the incident that swayed referee Bjorn Kuijpers’s mind.
There were enough chances carved out by Ante Cacic’s Croatia either side of Nikola Kalinic’s equaliser for them to righteously feel aggrieved had they been punished from the spot. Ivan Rakitic struck the bar with an audacious curling lob, Darijo Srna flashed a shot over the crossbar on one of his many forays from right-back and a cross from Srna had De Gea flapping, Marko Pjaca failing to take advantage with an overhead kick that fell wide. All this without Real Madrid’s Luka Modric pulling the strings in midfield.
Spain continued to press for a winner, the naivety of which duly exposed by Ivan Perisic, the left-wing livewire who caused problems throughout with his pace and direct running, emphatically finishing off a move that started with Artiz Aduriz’s shot being blocked on the edge of the Croatian box and ended with the ball being thundered into the corner of De Gea’s net.
That move took in two passes and 80 yards, accentuating Croatia’s ability to counter-attack and Spain’s tendency to concentration-lapses at the back which, as manager Vincent Del Bosque acknowledged in the aftermath, could cost them so dearly.
The mood in the Croatian camp meanwhile was in palpable contrast. “It’s a huge achievement, and now we can be even more self-confident” said Cacic while man of the match Perisic warned “this is only the beginning” as he targeted bettering the team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup.
Perisic is now at Inter Milan via 2 years at Wolfsburg following a spell with Borussia Dortmund which ended with the winger falling out with Jurgen Klopp. Klopp has been linked with a reunion with the player he told to “shut his mouth and not complain to reporters” back in 2012 shortly before selling him to Wolfsburg for €8 million.
Those words seemed to have registered with Perisic who is now regarded as Croatia’s most consistent performer and given the way he has performed in the group stages, also netting against Czech Republic with a similarly clinical strike after isolating the full-back, it is no surprise to see interest generated from clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea. The 27 year old is willing and able to do the required attacking and defensive jobs of the modern winger, but is also a throwback to the art of quick-feet and an undeviating desire to head straight towards goal armed with a deadly left-foot.
Of course it isn’t all about Perisic and behind Cacic’s confidence is the fact that he is in charge of a widely talented squad. Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic has been full of energy in the group stages while Luka Modric, missing in Bordeaux due to injury, won the opening game with Turkey with a stunning strike and has dictated Croatia’s rhythm with his artful passing and fine vision.
In there with them Milan Badelj was superb against Spain and has emerged as Cacic’s unquestioned holding midfielder, the glue that holds together a system that allows his two more illustrious colleagues to play. The maturity and ease with which 20 year old Marko Rog, earning only his fourth cap, took to the task of filling in for Modric against Spain suggests the quality of Cacic’s squad, and a next generation worthy of succeeding the household names.
The 21 year old Marko Pjaca, on the opposite wing to Perisic against Spain but similarly direct with his threat to offer added unpredictability and balance, is attracting interest from Fiorentina and Roma and is likely to get a big money move this summer after impressing for Dinamo Zagreb. The 24 year old Vrsaljko already has his move, completing an €18 million deal with Atletico after establishing himself as a dynamic right-back in Italy for Sassuolo, with many seeing him as the natural heir to the evergreen Darijo Srna.
Marcelo Brozovic missed out against Spain but was solid enough in the group stage games with Turkey and Czech Republic, his all-action jack-of-all-trade performances for Inter Milan have long since alerted a string of Premier League clubs. 19 beguiling year old Ante Coric has not yet featured in France but is seen as the new David Silva/Robert Prosonecki, while Barcelona’s precocious Alen Halilovic failed to make the squad.
At the back Bayer Leverkusen’s 20 year old Tin Jedjav’s assuredness proved against Spain that long-term isn’t a worry as Cacic has to deal with the ageing legs of the shower-cap adorned Vedran Corluka and a rift with Dejan Lovren that cost the Liverpool defender a place in the squad. It is indeed a talented bunch of youngsters coming through and Cacic here is being vindicated for taking the experience of Modric, Rakitic, Perisic and co., all in the prime of their careers between the ages of 27-31, and blending it with youthful hunger and ability.
Together, and presented with the favourable draw they earned so spectacularly, they can target history. Finding a reliable source of goals in attack seemed an issue for Cacic but he seemed to have solved that on Tuesday as the misfiring Mario Mandzukic made way for Kalinic, who played like the striker he was for the first half of last season by remaining a danger throughout and brushing a well-taken equaliser past De Gea.
Take out the last 15 minutes of the match with Czech Republic when crowd trouble reared its head through the form of flares and Croatia surrendered a 2 goal lead, Cacic’s men have arguably been the most impressive side in an oddly passive, slow-boiling group stage. That trouble was sparked by many fans feeling alienated by a national team they perceive as being used as a vehicle for corruption. There were protest chants also present in Bordeaux, but Croatia’s stunning progress may now turn from resentment and anger to celebration and excitement about just how far this team can go.