Neil Humphreys: How Croatia fashioned Spain's first Euro loss since 2004
Beware the dark horses
From also-rans to tournament dark horses, Croatia pulled off one of the shocks of Euro 2016 by beating Spain 2-1 and overtaking them at the top of Group D yesterday morning (Singapore time). Here's how they did it.
1 Cacic's bold pressing game
Somehow, Croatia handed the Spaniards their first European Championship defeat since 2004. And they did so without the injured pair of Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic.
Rather than hedge his bets, coach Ante Cacic made five changes and went for a pleasantly attacking approach.
As part of a 4-2-3-1 approach, Darijo Srna and Sime Vrsaliko had the thankless task of containing Nolito and David Silva and supporting Marko Pjaca and Ivan Perisic.
In fact, the quartet complemented each other, thanks to Cacic's insistence on a fast, pressing game that played to Perisic's strengths.
2 Kalinic played the bully
At a tournament where traditional No. 9s have struggled to assert themselves, Nikola Kalinic bullied Spain's back four and particularly David de Gea at set pieces.
The Fiorentina hitman intimidated the Spanish goalkeeper throughout, forcing him to make rash decisions that led to goals.
Kalinic deserved his delightfully flicked goal and might have had a hat-trick. He offers a legitimate attacking threat for Croatia in the knockout stages.
3 Rakitic had the Barca boys' numbers
Ivan Rakitic knows everything about his Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, and it showed.
An increasingly dominant influence at the Nou Camp, he gradually controlled proceedings against Spain, too.
Despite being outnumbered in midfield, Rakitic wriggled free to feed Kalinic and was unlucky not to score himself when his glorious chip struck the bar.
4 Perisic puts in a star turn
On the right side of a front three, Perisic put together his own highlights package.
Head down and legs pumping like industrialised pistons, he delivered the kind of swashbuckling, positive performance that has been so rare at Euro 2016.
Spain are rarely subjected to such penetrative running, leaving Juanfran dazed and confused as Perisic crossed for Kalinic's opening goal.
The Inter attacker would have left the Duracell Bunny trailing in his wake in his frantic dash to score Croatia's winner.
Like his team, the Croat is slowly coming to the fore and stealing the limelight from more illustrious names.
5 No fan violence
The behaviour of the Croatian fans should not be underestimated.
Before kick-off, rumours circulated that there were disturbances planned for the 30th minute, including an attack on referee Bjorn Kuipers.
A sizeable number of supporters remain angry at what they perceive to be systemic corruption within their football association.
Both coach Cacic and the players admitted that the previous violence inside the stadium had affected their concentration.
However, yesterday's game passed without serious incident.
The Croatians may yet face further punishment for crowd violence, but for now, the country can breathe a little and look forward to the knockout stages.
(Nikola Kalinic 45, Ivan Perisic 87)
(Alvaro Morata 7)
Rakitic: Quality doesn’t always win, but effort does
What gave Croatia the edge over defending champions Spain in their 2-1 Euro 2016 Group D win yesterday morning (Singapore time)?
According to Croatia and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic, the result was a victory of effort over quality.
"When you play against the best team in the world, you have to play like this," he said.
"We deserve it. Quality doesn't always win, but effort does.''
Rakitic lined up against Barcelona teammates Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta.
"If you don't work hard, they will lead you on a dance," the midfielder told Spanish newspaper AS.
"We didn't close down well for the first goal. There was a lot of room and we were punished. With very little, they punished us.
"Let's enjoy today's victory and then think about what comes next.
"If we keep this up, we can do something nice.
"Split loyalties? I'll have to explain to my (Spanish) wife what's happened.
"It's a divided heart, but anyone who knows me knows we have a lot of Spain shirts at home."
Croatia are now in the dream section of the draw as they meet a third-placed team in the last 16 in Lens on Sunday morning.
Spain, meanwhile, face a much tougher route, starting with Italy and then potentially Germany and France to reach the final.
"I am aware winning against Spain is a huge achievement, now we can be really confident. We can show how strong we are," said coach Ante Cacic.
"We cannot think about which draw is better and that we are playing not-so-strong teams.
"You have to win every match. The draw only tells you either Spain or Italy will not be in the quarter-finals.
"This is just the first stage, but we are first (in the group).
"I believe we can achieve even more success and be even more confident.
"Now we have to win every match."
Man of the Match Ivan Perisic joked it was Italy who got lucky with the draw as they avoided Croatia.
"You have to be happy that you are not playing against Croatia," he said when asked why he wanted to avoid Italy, where he plays his club football with Inter Milan.
Croatia fans will be hoping the joke doesn't fall flat.
- Wire Services.