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Croatia 3-5 Spain: Who said Spain are boring?

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Here’s what we learned from a thrilling round of 16 tie

Croatia v Spain - UEFA Euro 2020: Round of 16 Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Spain reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 after beating Croatia in a remarkable eight-goal thriller on Monday. The 5-3 win in Copenhagen, Spain’s first knockout game victory since the final of Euro 2012, was arguably the match of the tournament so far. After a bizarre mis-control by Unai Simon gave Croatia the lead, Spain found its rhythm and sailed into a two-goal lead courtesy of strikes from Pablo Sarabia, Cesar Azpilicueta and Ferran Torres. Everything fell apart in the final five minutes as two Croatia goals forced extra-time, but La Roja rallied once again as Alvaro Morata and Mikel Oyarzabal sealed a thrilling win. Here’s what we learned from the game.

Spain’s Lineup:

Verticality is a compromise

In fairness, we asked for it. Spain’s opening two group games were painfully dull affairs, the same old pass, pass, pass approach making Spain utterly dominant but creating few meaningful chances. Since his appointment as coach in 2018, Luis Enrique has often spoken of the need to make Spain more vertical - Verticalidad – in order to get the most out of a new generation of players with different attributes and qualities than those of the past. Yet old habits die hard, and more often than not La Roja has resorted to passing for the sake of passing. Croatia offered the perfect opportunity to wheel out the new Spain.

Known for their high and aggressive pressing, Luis Enrique chose to start Ferran Torres and Pablo Sarabia on the wings, both traditional wingers that stretch the game more than Dani Olmo and Gerard Moreno. This worked a treat, with both making runs in behind, whipping in excellent crosses and just generally making a nuisance of themselves. Sarabia grabbed Spain’s first half equaliser after pinball in the box, while Ferran assisted the second with a pinpoint cross and made a brilliant run out wide before slotting home the third. Spain now look a much more dangerous side, almost freed of the expectations placed upon them by the previous generation. The win even broke a record; never before had a team scored five goals in consecutive European Championship matches.

But as we saw, verticality can result in chaos. When controlling possession and racking up passes, Spain have always look comfortable. In its opening three games of the tournament, Spain allowed only 12 opposition shots on goal, fewer than any other side. Against Croatia they allowed seven, surrendered total control in midfield and looked defensively shaky whenever they came under pressure. Both of Croatia’s late goals came as a result of a failure to deal with balls into the box, something that Luis Enrique will need to address should he continue to employ this more swashbuckling style. Perhaps it is to be expected; after all, Spain have long been control freaks, so letting go was never going to be easy.

Sarabia in from the cold

Many questioned Sarabia’s surprise inclusion in Luis Enrique’s squad, but oh boy, how wrong they were. So far this tournament the Paris Saint-Germain winger has played with the energy and freshness of someone who only started 13 games in Ligue 1 last season, but with none of the rustiness you’d expect. His four goal contributions in four games (two goals and two assists) are more than anyone else in the squad, and as previously mentioned, his verticality gives Spain a new outlet and dimension it’s long needed. He may not seem like a ‘Spain player’, but right now, he is exactly what is needed to implement Luis Enrique’s aggressive style.

This team has cojones

To win 5-3 AET, after conceding a freak own goal and then throwing away a two-goal lead with minutes left to play, requires some serious character. Thankfully, this team has it in bucketloads. Ask any sports psychologist and they’ll tell you that success at international tournaments is just as much down to mentality as it is skill on the pitch. You only need to look at France’s failure to comeback from a late collapse against Switzerland to see that.

On an individual level, Spain’s resilience shone through. Morata has been hounded for his poor finishing over the past couple of weeks, and revealed before the Croatia game that his family have received threats due to his struggles. To overcome all of that and score a crucial and quite brilliant goal in extra-time deserves the utmost praise, as does his all-round excellent 120-minute outing. Unai Simon showed similar mental fortitude. Lesser goalkeepers would have crumbled following the kind of clanger he dropped in the twentieth minute, but he recovered to make crucial saves when Spain were 2-1 up, and then again early in extra-time with the score locked at 3-3. His six errors that resulted in goals in LaLiga last season may be a red flag, but his powers of recovery are hard to come by in goalkeepers.

This group of players has the mental strength to overcome anything.

Villarreal watch

This wasn’t the best game for Villarreal’s representatives. Pau Torres came on as a second half substitute, while Gerard Moreno didn’t get off the bench. Pau started well, pinging a superb 50-yard free-kick out to Ferran who duly slotted home. Surprisingly, he looked shaky in the closing stages alongside Aymeric Laporte, and lost his man for Croatia’s injury-time equaliser.

This game was both physically and emotionally draining for the players, but they got there in the end. Switzerland await in Friday’s quarter-final in Saint Petersburg, having eliminated world champions France in a similarly pulsating encounter.