Navas delivers on cue to seal top spot for relieved Spain
GROUP C SPAIN 1 CROATIA 0IT MAY not have been the way they wanted it and the nerves were frayed for far too long, but the European Champions are in the quarter-final.
Spain and Croatia spent 87 minutes waiting for a goal. When it finally arrived, it was Jesus Navas who scored it, to send Spain through as winners of Group C.
The problem for Spain was that at 0-0 they would go through in second, not as group winners.
The other problem was that they were on a knife edge, knowing that a single goal could knock them out. They had sought to avoid those nerves but created little. At the other end, Iker Casillas twice saved them. And then, with three minutes left, at last there was space. Two substitutes were involved. Cesc Fabregas clipped a lovely pass into Andres Iniesta, who brought the ball down on the chest and rolled it across the face of goal for Navas to walk into the net, smashing it with all his might from less than a yard.
The power in the shot was an expression of the relief. How long they had waited, how close they had felt to disaster.
Slaven Bilic had talked about the need to compete with Spain for possession and he shifted his side to that end. Nikica Jelavic started on the bench, leaving Mario Mandzukic up front on his own with an extra man in midfield.
Spain kept the same side that had destroyed the Republic of Ireland. That was the nature of the task that confronted Croatia.
A wonderful combination between Silva and Iniesta opened Croatia up. Slow-slow-slow-suddenly quick, Iniesta dashing into the area. The pass was hit hard; the shot, though, was not.
Next there was a long range effort each from the centre-backs, first Sergio Ramos then Gerard Pique. Both sailed over. And Torres muscled his way in on the right. But his shot was blocked at the near post by the shin of Stipe Pletikosa and Spain had not made a genuinely clear chance.
Suddenly, Croatia found the space they had waited for on 24 minutes. Danijel Pranjic shot into Casillas’s body having been found by Modric and a moment later Darijo Srna’s cut-back was belted over the bar by Mandzukic. Then Croatia felt that they should have had a penalty when Ramos flew into a challenge with studs up on Mandzukic. He appeared to get the ball but it was risky indeed.
A few moments later, the giant screens showed Italy were 1-0 up in Poznan. All three teams were provisionally level on five points, so a mini-league between the three sides decided. Croatia were out; Spain were second, not first. Italy were poised to be group winners.
Spain knew that a goal against was dangerous and the later it came the more dangerous it would be. The half-time whistle was a reminder of that fact.
After an hour a break down the right caught Spain out. Modric delivered a gorgeous cross met by Ivan Ratikic’s diving header but Iker Casillas made a superb save.
Vicente del Bosque responded immediately. Navas replaced Torres in the search for width and depth to the attack, with David Silva now moving into the false number nine position. Still, the clock. The nerves. The wait.
Del Bosque’s next change was to send on Fabregas for Silva and as the clock moved, so did the priorities. Croatia were surely aware of the increasing need to find a goal but, despite Bilic sending on Jelavic, there was no real sense of desperation.
With 12 minutes to go Mandzukic’s left wing cross found Ivan Perisic who volleyed goalwards. Again, Casillas made the save.
But on 87 minutes Spain and Navas had the final say.