Mike Holden thinks Saturday's last 16 clash in Lens could be decided by fine margins.
These two teams were virtually inseparable on my pre-tournament ratings and though they’ve taken wildly contrasting paths to reach this point, they are both virtually inseparable now. With so much being made of the draw and the glorious opportunity to reach the final that awaits one mid-ranking nation that can best hold its nerve, the draw has to be the play at 21/10 here.
Some will no doubt argue that Croatia have been far superior over the past two weeks, and they’d probably be right, but group stage football isn’t knockout football, possession football isn’t counter attacking football, and you should never get too carried away by the evidence of just three games. A substantial number of caveats can be applied to any analysis of both teams.
Portugal have toiled but it would be crude to ignore the performance data that underpinned frustrating draws against Iceland, Austria and Hungary. If fate decrees that regression should be unleashed here, then Croatia could be in big trouble. The Seleccao have had the most shots at this tournament, the second most on target and conceded the second fewest.
Yet only only briefly have they had anything to protect. When Nani opened the scoring against Iceland, the Iberians could have been forgiven for thinking progression was going to be a breeze. But the lead lasted just 19 minutes. They were sucker-punched less than five minutes into the second period and they’ve been chasing their own tail ever since.
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So we know Portugal aren’t really cut out for chasing games and they will probably welcome the change of context whereby the opposition have just as much to lose. We also have no worthwhile evidence to inform us how fiercely they might protect a lead, although their figures for possession (61.2 per cent) and pass success (86.6 per cent) suggest they might be pretty good at it.
This is silent evidence that Croatia have to respect, and they also have to respect the fact they were given an easy ride by Turkey, then squandered a two-goal lead in the final 20 minutes against the Czech Republic. Impressive though they have been for the most part, they are hardly beyond interrogation. And as with many knockout games, the first goal might be the only goal.
However, it’s those final group matches - the respective approaches, how they unfolded and the contrasting effects - that have me ultimately leaning towards Croatia. The Blazers should be energised by what occurred in Bordeaux against the Spanish, spurred on for longer by that empowering late goal from Ivan Perisic. Portugal, more than anything, are just relieved.
And that could be the difference later on. When you go beyond the 90 minutes and you have to dig deep to find something extra, Ante Cacic has all the aces up his sleeve, not least more rested players and better options from the bench. So in addition to backing the stalemate over 90, split a point between Croatia to win in extra time at 12/1 and Croatia to win on penalties at 9/1.
Click here for more information about Mike Holden’s shot-based ratings system