Spain sealed their place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 with a 1-0 victory over Croatia that left them as winners of Group C, but things were far from straightforward in Gdansk as Slaven Bilic’s side put up a real fight before bowing out of the tournament. We look at some of the issues that came out of Monday’s match
Spain’s title defence remains on course after beating Croatia to finish as Group C winners but can they go all the way in Poland and Ukraine? And how will Croatia look back at their campaign after exiting earlier than perhaps their vibrant style of play deserved?
Do Spain have a plan B?
The fluent tiki-taka style of the European and world champions has endeared them to football lovers all over the world. When it works, there is nothing more aesthetically pleasing on the field of play, than the slick interchange of passing and movement before a sumptuous finish is applied.
Their rigid pursuit of goals through this approach is to be admired. They don’t panic; they stay patient and tiki-taka their way to the inevitable goal. Yet, what happens on the rare occasion this approach fails to yield a goal? It was almost the case against Croatia. The best sides in the world will always find solutions to the problems on the pitch. But that is usually through a multi-faceted approach. For all the quality of their style, it is undoubtedly one-dimensional. They managed to overcome Croatia with it, and it has been successful against every other team in the world too. At present, they don’t seem to have a Plan B. At present, they don’t seem to need one. But how long will that last for?
‘False number nine’
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque caused a stir in Spain’s opening game against Italy when he named his team without a recognised striker. Fernando Torres was introduced to that game as a second-half substitute, before being reinstated to the starting line-up for the Republic of Ireland game where he duly bagged a brace. However, he never looked like replicating those goals against Croatia and was replaced by winger Jesus Navas, who notched the solitary goal of the game. Spain are revolutionising the way we play football. But to play without any strikers. Could this be taking the boundaries too far? Their success over the last four years has come with David Villa or Torres at the apex of their attack. Without a natural striker on the field, for long periods against Slaven Bilic’s team, Spain looked toothless. Del Bosque has every confidence his superbly talented midfield players will retain possession and create chances that one of them will ultimately take. However, a quality striker is very often the difference between success and failure at this exalted level. Strikers live to score goals, whereas a midfielder may have an eye for goal. It’s a subtle difference, but one that could prove Spain’s undoing.
Can Spain go all the way?
The European champions are now just three games away from retaining their title. It will be a unique achievement if they manage to pull it off. No country has ever retained this crown but will Spain be able to do so in Poland and Ukraine? Excellent though their play is – it lacks variation. They will definitely be in the running for the crown, but a well-drilled and expansive German team look to have the multi-faceted approach that maybe the holders lack and that could see them triumph.
Keeping Spain at bay is undoubtedly one of the toughest tasks in international football and devising a strategy to contain such talented attackers is a real test of a manager’s wits, but Slaven Bilic earned his corn by shuffling his pack and going with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Vedran Corluka and Gordon Schildenfeld excelled at centre-back and were shielded expertly by the likes of Darijo Srna, Ivan Rakitic and Ognjen Vukojevic in midfield, with Croatia only conceding when they had to throw caution to the wind in the closing stages.
What might have been
Croatia’s big chance arrived just before the hour mark and it is a moment Ivan Rakitic will replay in his mind over and over on the flight home. Luka Modric did brilliantly to escape down the right wing and deliver a fine cross to his unmarked team-mate at the back post, but Rakitic saw his header brilliantly saved by Iker Casillas from close range and he was denied again from the rebound. If it had gone in Croatia would have been in pole position to finish as group winners, and even if Spain had equalised they would have gone through as Italy only beat Republic of Ireland 2-0.
An honourable exit
Despite bowing out at the group stage, Croatia can leave with their heads held high after competing on an even keel with two of the strongest teams in the tournament. Having beaten Republic of Ireland and held Italy, Bilic’s men were far from outclassed by Spain as they combined defensive steel with a counter-attacking threat. If things had gone differently they might be into the quarter-finals and fancying their chances of going a long way, but they still should not be too disappointed as the future is bright with so many technically gifted players. Bilic will now take up his role with Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia but the new man will have solid foundations in place to push towards the World Cup.