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Croatia vs Spain preview: Let the knockouts begin

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Spain are favourites to progress, but will they live up to the billing?

Slovakia v Spain - UEFA Euro 2020: Group E Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Spain’s quest to become champions of Euro 2020 gets serious on Monday with a clash against World Cup runners-up Croatia in the round of 16. Despite hammering Slovakia 5-0 in their final group game La Roja were unable to top Group E, but confidence will be high after the dominant performance instilled a new sense of belief and drive in a previously stuttering side. Monday marks almost nine years to the day since Spain’s last knockout win in a major tournament, that being the 4-0 demolition of Italy in the final of Euro 2012. That barren run will have to come to an end if Luis Enrique’s side are to set up a quarter-final showdown with one of France or Switzerland.

Spain

Luis Enrique made a few personnel changes for the win against Slovakia, and they proved to make a big impact.

Sergio Busquets returned from Covid-enforced absence to put in a typically brilliant performance. He moved the ball effortlessly, knew exactly when to take a risk or play it safe, and instilled confidence in those around him, particularly his apprentice Pedri. While the Barcelona veteran may not have the legs he used to, he shouldn’t have too much of a problem controlling the midfield against an ageing Croatia side lacking in pace. His main concern will be stemming the influence of Luka Modric; two of LaLiga’s greatest football minds going head-to-head promises to be special.

Pablo Sarabia also came into the side last time out and impressed. The PSG wide-man was a livewire all afternoon, putting in crosses, shots and just generally causing havoc. His effective pressing, coupled with his seemingly greater impact than both Dani Olmo and Ferran Torres, makes him a sure starter for us.

Pedri has played all 270 minutes of Spain’s campaign so far, and there’s a simple reason why; he has been simply outstanding. It’s almost scary how good the 18-year-old’s passing and vision has been, exemplified by his three pre-assists (yes, we’re making that a thing) against Slovakia. He was the shining light in Spain’s opening two matches, and he was the driving force on Wednesday. Unless he’s absolutely knackered (which he may well be), then he has to be the first name on Luis Enrique’s team sheet.

Gerard Moreno, while not at his absolute best, has looked good in the two games in which he has started. Him and Alvaro Morata seemed to have formed a decent partnership which we are sure in time will start to yield more goals. Pau Torres was replaced by Eric Garcia against Slovakia, but we expect both him and Gerard to start against Croatia.

Spain have no injury concerns or suspensions for this game, so if, God forbid, things aren’t going so well, then Lucho will have a full bench to turn to.

Here’s how we reckon Spain will line up:

The opponents

Croatia have not been their usual selves this tournament. The perennial dark horses began their campaign with a limp performance in a 0-1 defeat to England, before labouring to a 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic. A 3-1 defeat of Scotland on the final matchday secured runners-up spot in Group D.

Things aren’t going to get any easier for Zlatko Dalic’s side. This week, Ivan Perisic tested positive for Covid-19, and so will miss Monday’s encounter. Centre-back Dejan Lovren will be absent through suspension, having picked up his second yellow card of the tournament against Scotland. That’s two of Croatia’s most experienced players and leaders that will be missing, making it even more likely that Modric will be at the centre of everything they do. The Real Madrid maestro was masterful against Scotland, an while everyone knows what he’s capable of, Spain will have to be switched on to prevent him pulling the strings.

Prediction

Spain look to be back to free-scoring ways of old, while Croatia’s defence has looked less than convincing so far. We don’t see this being a goal-fest, but we reckon Spain will ride out comfortable 2-0 winners.