There were warnings before Euro 2016 began that things might not go according to plan for Croatia, that any progress they made at this tournament might be sabotaged by a faction within their own support. Now those whispers have turned into headlines and you could argue the tactic of throwing flares and fireworks onto the pitch at Saint-Etienne has already had its desired effect.
Some of the players were said to be inconsolable afterwards, head coach Ante Cacic labelled it "sports terrorism" and Ivan Perisic suggested the team might be better off packing its bags and getting the next plane home. We can only assume it was heat-of-the-moment stuff and they see it differently now, but it’s equally possible that Croatia’s best football is already behind us.
At the very least, they now have a ready-made excuse if the going gets tough, a reason for coming up short that most observers would readily get on board with. In fact, they’ve already used it once. Flares or no flares, there’s no way they should have dropped points against the Czech Republic. They ought to have been at least 4-0 up by the time Luka Modric departed through injury.
But therein lies a fundamental problem, one that’s unlikely to be helped by Modric’s confirmed absence in this game: Croatia aren’t nearly clinical enough to be considered contenders. In two matches against extremely submissive opposition, they’ve had 37 attempts at goal and hit the target only 12 times, scoring just three goals.
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Modric scored one of those goals himself - that wonder strike from distance against Turkey - and reports from inside their camp in Deauville on the northern coast suggest Ivan Perisic will drop back into a holding midfield role for this game, giving 19-year-old Ante Coric the chance to make his competitive international debut in an advanced midfield position.
So the supply line could easily dry up, leaving the Croats looking like a pale shadow of the team they were in those first two outings, and Spain good value to take advantage at 11/10. Even if the Blazers were at full strength, you’d expect them to see less of the ball against La Roja and their sluggish back four to be tested more often.
Vicente Del Bosque has hinted that he will rotate but only to protect the likes of Juanfran (Champions League finalist), Sergio Ramos (ditto, plus a yellow card away from suspension), Cesc Fabregas and Alvaro Morata. Training has been buzzing and likely replacements Hector Bellerín, Mikel San Jose, Koke and Aritz Aduriz are perfectly capable of keeping the good vibe going.
So long as Andres Iniesta continues to pull the strings and treat us all to a passing masterclass, Spain will find spaces and create chances. It might not be quite as emphatic as it was against Turkey but their mentality won’t allow them to slack off for fear of losing their mojo. An additional bet on the 2-0 correct score best reflects the routine outcome anticipated.
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