18 June 2012

Spain 1-0 Croatia

Navas 88'

Spain are so very, very Spain.

Restrained, typical tiki-taka. Spain out-passed, Spain out-possessed, but Spain never truly threatened until the very end either. Complete Fernando Torres futility, but instead of replacing Spain's out-and-out striker in a straight swap, Del Bosque sent on an out-and-out winger to play with Silva, then Fàbregas, as a false nine.

And until the 88th minute, it was less than impressive.

Spain knew Croatia would have to come out of its shell sometime, and eventually made them pay for it. Alonso to Fàbregas, who chipped over the top, just beating the offside trap which Spain had been unable to beat until that point. Iniesta and Navas through on goal with five Croatians stood static with an arm in the air, with the former centering for latter, again just barely onside, for an unmissable tap-in.

Spain could well have been punished earlier. The Spanish may have owned the ball, but the Croatians had the best chances until Navas prompted the fat lady's song, as both Mandžukić and Modrić impressed when given the chance. Neither keeper was truly tested in the first half, but Croatia could easily have won a penalty on a counter-attack, with Ramos and Piqué both bamboozled by Mandžukić, as the former attempted to make amends with a supremely rash challenge in the box, only for Croatia to just get a corner.

Croatia's moment of glory nearly came 14 minutes into the second half: Modrić's so-delicious-it-has-to-be-fattening outside of the right foot cross, but Rakitić's point blank header wonderfully denied by Casillas, with Alonso scrambling the rebound out of the six-yard-box by Alonso. 20 minutes later, Modrić started another counter, Mandžukić crossed from the left, and Perišić snapped a shot on goal, again parried by Spain's captain. Had Croatia seized one of those openings, it would have been a very different game. But, whether due to Casillas or the defending before a potential chance got to Casillas, we never found out how Spain would respond if forced to deviate from the familiar script.

The everyday, ho-hum, phenomenal passing statistics:

Xavi completed 94 of 105. Xabi 83 of 93. Iniesta, Busquets, Ramos, Arbeloa, Alba, and Pique all attempted at least 60 and completed at least 54. Every single Spanish starter save Torres and Casillas attempted and completed more passes than any Croatia player. But that's become more than familiar from Spain.

Credit where due, the substitutions baffled, but the substitutions worked.

Croatia were definitely under far more pressure in the last 30 minutes, unable to shift from defense to attack even though they needed a goal to have any chance of advancing because Spain's unstinting pressure rarely allowed them out of their own half. Yes, it was hard to understand replacing an out-and-out – if misfiring – striker with a textbook winger at the same time Spain switched to a false nine, with Llorente and Negredo and Pedro and Cazorla on the bench. But Fàbregas set up the winner with his perfectly timed and placed chip while Navas scored the winner. Death by a thousand cuts still leads to death in the end and Del Bosque evidently knows more than how to manage the egos in his squad.

Let's not pretend this is anything different than what we've seen from Spain in the past. Every single win during the 2010 World Cup knock-out rounds was a 1-0 win with a goal scored after the hour mark, beating Germany by the same score in the Euro 2008 final. As Sid Lowe, and many many others, have written for the last four years, tiki-taka remains as much a defensive philosophy as an attacking one. Spain knew that keeping it goal-less would be good enough no matter how many goals Italy beat the Irish by, and had the faith in their system after the successes over the last four years. And, despite those few scares, that faith was justified.

Once again, Spain's best defense is wearing down the opposition with pass after pass after pass and eking a 1-0 win in the end. And relying on Casillas to make those necessary saves twice in a blue moon. That will continue to be the game plan going forward, and the same result in the next three matches will be more than suffice for Del Bosque and co.

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