Sunday 25 September 2016

Croatia strike late on to put stunned Spain on collision course with Italy

Croatia 2-1 Spain

Jim White

Published 22/06/2016 | 02:30

Croatia's midfielder Ivan Perisic scored a stunning late winner. Photo: Getty
Croatia's midfielder Ivan Perisic scored a stunning late winner. Photo: Getty

No-one saw that coming. Ivan Perisic's stunning late breakaway winner pushed Spain into second place in Group D, dispatching the European champions towards an early encounter with Italy.

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And Croatia, their noisy, checkerboard clad fans fizzing with delight, are now heading towards the softer side of the draw. It was not that, despite already being guaranteed advancement, Spain failed to take them seriously indeed.

Croatia began knowing that the four points they had already accrued were sufficient to guarantee qualification. That may have been considered just as well because without Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic, both temporarily absent injured, their chances of gleaning anything from this encounter appeared slight before kick-off.

Spain took the lead barely seven minutes in. David Silva played the most sumptuous reverse pass behind the Croatia defence for Cesc Fabregas, galloping into space, to fire past Daniel Subasic; almost on the line, Alvaro Morata turned the ball in to match Gareth Bale's group stage scoring record.

The Croatian response, however, suggested they are not a team to be easily turned over.

Ivan Rakitic, up against his Barcelona team-mates Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta in what seemed a hopelessly unequal midfield battle, started pulling the strings.

Spain goalkeeper David De Gea walks off the pitch at the end of the match: Photo: AP
Spain goalkeeper David De Gea walks off the pitch at the end of the match: Photo: AP

First Nikola Kalinic had a shot that David de Gea saved, then Darijo Srna fired over, before a horrible mistake by De Gea presented the ball to Rakitic, his chip evaded both the scrambling keeper, and a back-pedalling Gerard Pique. But it hit the bar, the ball bounced down and rolled along the line.

Some of the Croatian fans, smarting about what they insist is gangsterism at the top of their FA, had plotted to invade the pitch at a given signal, their motive to embarrass their footballing authorities with a forced departure from the competition. But a line of riot police in front of the checkerboard hordes prevented any incursion.

Instead, the supporters watched on in delight as their team did something no other side has done across 720 minutes of competitive football: they scored a goal against Spain. The breach of the Spanish lockout arrived just before half-time.

The excellent Ivan Perisic (left) befuddled Juanfran before firing in a cross which Kalinic flicked past De Gea, prompting a pyrotechnic bang of celebration from the red and white checked end of the stadium.

Spain's Jordi Alba fights for the ball against Croatia's Vedran Corluka. Photo: AP
Spain's Jordi Alba fights for the ball against Croatia's Vedran Corluka. Photo: AP

Once the game was level, through the second half, the two teams traded chances promiscuously. Juanfran blasted over after being well played in by Silva, Marko Pjaca span an overhead kick just wide. In an attempt to regain control, Spain reverted to type, Iniesta pulling the strings in lengthy keep-ball sessions. But Croatia kept snapping into Spanish possession, disrupting flows, having a go.

Then came the tale of two penalties, one given, one not. First Marko Pjaca went down theatrically after a collision with Sergio Ramos. The referee waved away lengthy Croat protests. Then, as if to ferment Croatia's sense of injustice, Silva was tripped by Sime Vrsaljko as he hared on to Iniesta's inch-perfect through-ball. But Subasic stood firm and stopped Ramos' kick.

Justice was done. And further enforced with Perisic's deflected winner following a sumptuous counter-attack.

Irish Independent

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