With one wave of his magic right foot, Luka Modrić provided a timely reminder of the quality Croatia possess. With the score tied at 1-1 against Scotland, and both sides needing a win to progress, Modrić stepped up and swept a beautiful curling effort into the top corner with the outside of his boot. It was a goal to grace any match at a major international tournament, and Scotland’s heartbreak was Croatia’s joy. Ivan Perišić’s header made it 3-1, and Croatia had finally produced the kind of football we know they are capable of.
The next challenge is a significant one, with Croatia paired against Spain in the last 16. The two teams are no strangers at the European Championships, having been paired together in the group stages of both Euro 2012 and Euro 2016. Spain claimed victory over Croatia in 2012, but Croatia got their revenge four years later, with a 2-1 win, consigning Spain to second place in the group.
But this is knockout football, and although Spain will be considered the favourites among those who bet on Croatia v Spain, the performance of Modrić and co. against Scotland proved that they cannot be underestimated. There is plenty of quality within Croatia’s ranks, and while they may not be the youngest side at these Championships, they have plenty of experienced, battle-hardened pros at their disposal.
In many ways, the 2018 World Cup feels like a lifetime ago. The coronavirus pandemic, which brought the sporting world to its knees and forced Euro 2020 to be delayed by a year, has meant that the achievements of Croatia three years ago in Russia have been forgotten somewhat in relation to their chances at this summer’s European Championships. Much of their squad remains the same, and with that kind of experience comes the opportunity to inflict more damage on better fancied opponents on the international stage.
That will be the aim against Spain, and judging by the way they handled the occasion against Scotland, they’re in with a decent shout of progressing to the quarter-finals. With a roaring home crowd cheering Scotland on at Hampden Park in Glasgow, it would have been understandable if Croatia had buckled, but they trusted their own ability and got the job done against a much inferior side on paper.
The win showcased an impressive recovery from a disappointing opening-match performance against England, and a similarly uninspiring draw with the Czech Republic. The experience within the Croatian ranks shone through, and they were by far the better team against Scotland. Three goals will give them confidence as they move into the knockout stage, and with Perišić registering his second goal of the tournament, he’ll be keen to boost his standing in the Euro 2020 top scorers charts.
Spain have certainly been far from their best in the tournament so far, but in hammering Slovakia 5-0 in their final group game, they’ll be in confident mood. Croatia will look to Spain’s dull draws with Sweden and Poland as a source of encouragement, and they know that if they frustrate Luis Enrique’s side for long periods, they’ll have a chance of making it a close game.
It’s clear that the spirit of Croatia’s run to the World Cup final in 2018 still lingers within much of the squad, and if they can harness that into a solid performance against Spain, we could well see them go on another deep run at a major tournament.