Even though Ireland had been eliminated after their 4-0 loss to Spain, Croatia was still in a position to disrupt the "yeah yeah, of course" progression of Spain and Italy into the quarterfinals. The Croats opened up impressively by dominating the Irish and then adjusted well to the Italian attack in their second match to secure a 1-1 draw with the Azzurri. Going into Monday's matches, a 0-0 draw with Spain would be enough only if Italy drew or lost their match with Ireland, a completely ridiculous circumstance considering that Croatia entered the day with a +2 differential while Italy was dead even.
Sidebar: I hate to keep complaining about the tiebreaker rules, but how does this make any sense? The first tiebreaker with three teams involved is "highest number of points obtained among the teams in question." That's a wash (assuming a Croatia vs Spain draw and an Italy win over Ireland) as all the teams would have won two points from those matches. The next tiebreaker is also a wash because "superior goal difference in the matches among the teams in question" wouldn't get us anywhere due to all the matches being draws. The third tiebreaker would then be the first to come into play because it is "higher number of goals scored in the matches among the teams in question." This is all very confusing so let me try to break it down as best I can. The Italy vs Spain match was a 1-1 draw and the Croatia vs Italy match was a 1-1 draw. If Croatia drew Spain 0-0, then Italy and Spain would move on, Italy because they would have two goals from the games involving all three teams and Spain because they would have an overall differential of +4 (overall goal differential being the fourth tiebreaker) to Croatia's +2. If Croatia drew Spain 1-1, then Spain would move on (all teams have two goals from games involving all three but Spain has a +4 differential) and it would come down to how many goals Italy could score against Ireland to boost their differential. If Spain and Croatia drew 2-2 (or any higher draw) then Spain and Croatia would automatically go through as they would have scored three goals from games involving the three tied teams while Italy would have only scored two. Do you see how ridiculous this is, how absurd and fluxy this these rules are? Compare that to this simple rule: overall goal differential. Croatia enters the day with 4 points and +2, Italy enters the day with 2 points and 0. If Croatia draws with Spain, then Italy have to score more than two goals against the Irish to advance. Simple, right? So why is UEFA beating us over the head with these head-to-head matchups?
Regardless of tiebreaking procedures, this is the spot Croatia found themselves in. They would have to hold the defending champions to a draw until Italy put a goal in on Ireland (and let's be honest, we all knew it would happen), at which point they would have to find a higher gear and score on the defending Euro and World Cup champions. A tall task for sure, but if they could find a way then they would guarantee their safety into the next round. Selectivity would be important, however, as pushing completely into the attack to get that goal would give a supremely talented Spanish side too many opportunities to rip them apart.
The games started as everyone knew they would: Italy attacked Ireland since Italy had to have a win, and Spain played possession soccer because a draw was good enough for them to move on. The only negative thing a draw might do for Spain would be to drop them into second place instead of winning the group, but do you think the defending champions really care if they play France, England, or Ukraine? Spain was perfectly content to sit in their comfort zone and try to get a goal, but not over extend themselves in doing so. For a while, this was fine for Croatia as well. Until the Italians scored, Croatia was into the next round. It made all the sense in the world for them to absorb the Spanish pressure without letting them have dangerous possession and try to do damage on the counter. To be fair to points of view that are not my own, goal differential as the first tie breaker would not have made the Croatia vs Spain match any more exciting as Italy would need to be winning by two goals before the teams in the other game started to care.
Everything changed when Italy scored their first goal. Now the Italians were going through and Croatia was on the outside. But let's also not forget where the Spaniards stood in all of this. The 0-0 draw was fine, but a goal by Croatia would send them out of the tournament, an unthinkable place for such a highly talented team. After halftime went by 0-0, both teams decided to make changes to better their chances of scoring. Vincent del Bosque brought on Jesus Navas for Spain, taking off Fernando Torres would had been relatively ineffectual as the game progressed, mostly due to a lack of service in my humble opinion. Navas is one of those players that Spain might want starting these games instead as he keeps the field wide and always makes positive, attacking runs that ask questions of the backline. Del Bosque's strategy is normally for Spain to probe with their possession style for the first sixty minutes or so and tire out the defense, so it makes sense to bring Navas on as a sub. But it also limits their ability to get out of early leads, something you would think would be ideal for Spain due to their possession style and ability to burn teams on the transition to offense. Regardless, his strategy is his own and Navas made all the difference in the world from early on, making those dangerous runs and opening up space for the players who like to have the ball at their feet. Slaven Bilic of Croatia decided to be aggressive early with his squad, putting on striker Nikica Jelavic (who was only not starting due to flu symptoms) and attack minded midfielder Ivan Perisic with just less than half an hour to go in the match. Though the introduction of Cesc Fabregas proved important to Spain, this earlier period of substitutions was the obvious "let's go win the game" portion of the match.
For Croatia and for Spain, it all came down to the chances they had in front of goal. Croatia had missed their best chance in the 59th, when Luka Modric's gorgeous outside of the foot cross was headed too close to Iker Casillas by Ivan Rakitic. Time went on and though Croatia looked unlikely to score, it was still nerve-wracking stuff for Spanish fans who knew a fluke goal would knock them out. Spain puts minds at ease in the 88th however, when Fabregas flicked a ball over the top for Andres Iniesta, who smartly squared for Navas in front of an open goal. I've seen some commentary buzz about how either Iniesta or Navas were offsides on their respective passes, but that is simply not true. Spain scored a smart goal to put the game out of reach and Croatia was left on the outside.
It is unfortunate for Croatia because trying to keep Spain scoreless is a very difficult task. It is even more unfortunate that they were playing in a system where one goal gave Italy the advantage rather than two goals bringing things back to even. If Italy had needed to score two goals from the outset, they may have been more reckless getting forward and we saw what happened to Holland. Granted Ireland is far from Portugal, but the game is different under those circumstances. Still, Croatia has nothing to be ashamed of and though they are gone from this tournament, they are certainly not forgotten. Now Italy and Spain move through into the quarterfinals where they will meet the survivors of a particularly strange Group D. Group A's surprises and Holland's exit have thrown us for a loop, but with Germany, Portugal, Italy, and Spain all through, chalk is alive and well in this tournament. England and France are certainly hoping that stays the case, at least for tomorrow.
Speaking of tomorrow, tune back then for my breakdown of what happens with Group D, and be ready for a separate post analyzing the quarterfinals and who has the best road to the title.