In what was billed as one of the most mouth-watering clashes of the knockout rounds, Croatia took on Portugal in the Round of 16 at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens with the latter having had a rest of just two days after their pulsating 3-3 draw against Hungary. They had prevailed in all three of their encounters with Croatia having scored six goals and conceded none while the Croats were enjoying an unbeaten run of 10 internationals (W8 D2), which was better than any other team involved at Euro 2016.
Ante Cacic reverted to his first choice starting XI with Mario Mandzukic starting instead of Nikola Kalinic and Marcelo Brozovic playing on the right wing. Luka Modric was deemed fit to start in central midfield while at the back Ivan Strinic played at left back next to Domagoj Vida as the left-sided central defender.
There were three changes for Portugal as Cedric Soares replaced Vieirinha while the more functional Adrien Silva started in midfield. Southampton’s central defender meanwhile partnered Pepe.
Pattern of Play
It was apparent from the team selection that Fernando Santos’ intention was to stifle Croatia’s midfield, specifically Luka Modric who perhaps wasn’t at his best coming straight back from injury. Adrian Silva was most of the times the furthest forward midfielder assigned with the task of marking Modric, with Mario playing on the right wing and Andre Gomes playing in the left half space leaving Ronaldo and Nani up front. The former Manchester United teammates played as split strikers – narrower further up the pitch and wider as the fell backwards to defend.
Therefore Portugal covered the width across the pitch well, not allowing any vertical passes to be played between the lines and William Carvalho sat in front of the defence mopping up anything that came his way. Within minutes of the start, Ronaldo was seen telling his teammates to move up the pitch and help him press the Croatia back four and Modric who were seeing a lot of the ball without really advancing past the midfield.
Rakitic further ahead was subjected to niggling fouls by the centre-backs as well as wide players while Silva was practically shadowing Modric, restricting any build-up play from Croatia. His partner Badelj wasn’t getting involved in the build-up and the two star men ended up exchanging just three passes between them in the first half.
Frustrated and contained, long balls out wide to Perisic were attempted a couple of times but it didn’t work out as Portugal dealt with them comfortably playing in their 4-5-1 block with Nani dropping back. Also, Mandzukic didn’t look completely fit and isn’t someone who would stretch defences by making runs in behind and was a surprising selection ahead of Kalinic by Cacic. Even more surprising was the fact that he nearly last the full 90 minutes.
Portugal were looking to play on the break, inviting their opponents further up the pitch but the creativity was lacking from midfield and Ronaldo and Nani barely got any service. Their best chance of the half came when Pepe headed Guerreiro’s freekick over the bar from 8 yards out. Croatia too were reluctant to commit men forward and it resulted in one of the cagiest half of the tournament as the stakes were high considering the forgiving nature of their half of the draw.
An interesting feature of the half was Joao Mario and Andre Gomes switching positions as the former took up a position out wide with the Valencia midfielder operated in the right halfspace and going wide when his side were without the ball. Cacic responded to the change asking Brozovic and Perisic to switch wings around 5 minutes later. It stayed that with 5 minutes to remaining for the half as the Portuguese wide players reverted back to their original starting positions and sure enough, the Croatian wingers to adjusted their positions a couple of minutes later.
By half time, there were a combined 7 touches in the attacking penalty area, 2nd-fewest in any 1st half of the tournament after Italy-Sweden (6). Meanwhile, Portugal had conceded 13 fouls in the first half, a tournament high. Referee Carlos Velsaco was quite lenient in this regard as he didn’t stamp down his authority and should have perhaps dished out an early yellow to put an end to the cynical nature the Portuguese had adapted.