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With everything still to play for in Group C, there was no chance of Spain taking Croatia lightly in their final group game at the PGE Arena in Gdansk, Poland, despite being tipped as considerable favorites.
In a tournament already renowned for its display of good attacking football, a reversal in the trends of recent European Championships, it was with some surprise that both sides came out fairly conservative, with neither team fashioning any clear chances early on. The best chance should arguably have fallen to Mario Mandzukic, who seemed to be fouled inside the penalty box by Sergio Ramos, but referee Wolfgang Stark did not penalize the Spanish defender much to the ire of the Croatian team and fans.
A lack of urgency plagued the rest of the first half, but with news arriving just before half time that Italy had taken the lead against the Republic of Ireland, a result which, if this match remained a deadlock, would confine Spain to second place in the group and Croatia to an early trip home from the tournament, events were poised for a dramatic upturn in tempo in the second half.
The realization that they would be going out of the tournament seemed to sink in for the Croatians, and they began to show real attacking intent early in the second half. This in turn opened up the game for Spain, who were pushing hard for a goal and a return to the top of the group table, only to be repeatedly denied by fierce Croatian defending.
The best chance of the game so far fell to Ivan Rakitic in the 58th minute when Luka Modric galloped away from his man on the right wing and delivered a pinpoint cross for Rakitic who, despite being unmarked, could only direct his header straight at the waiting Iker Casillas.
Despite facing the prospect of finishing second in the group, and theoretically facing tougher opposition in the quarter-final stage of the tournament, Spain seemed hesitant to push too many players forward in search of a winning goal, preferring to remain defensively disciplined and limit Croatia’s chances as much as possible.
With the minutes running out, Croatia were beginning to throw everyone forward in an attempt to keep their Euro 2012 dream alive, but as is often the way late in games, they were caught on the counter by Spain and substitute Cesc Fabregas lifted the ball over the defensive line for Andres Iniesta, who drew the goalkeeper and slipped a pass to Jesus Navas for the Sevilla player to slip into the unguarded net.
The late goal secured the top spot for Spain, whilst a 2-0 victory for Italy over the Republic of Ireland gave them the second qualifying place, with both teams eager to find out who they will face in the quarter-finals. With both England and France in a position to qualify from Group D, along with co-hosts Ukraine, there is the potential for some mouth watering clashes between Europe’s elite in the next round and all eyes will be on the matches between England and Ukraine and France and Sweden to see who Spain and Italy will face next.
Image Courtesy of Continental AG & Claudio Villa