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.
Within five minutes of the restart, Santos brought on 18-year-old Renato Sanches (for whom Bayern have paid €35 million, rising upto €80 million due to incentives) replacing Andre Gomes. He slotted in the midfield alongside Silva with Carvalho sitting deep. The change provided drive and impetus in midfield and even though his decision making wasn’t always perfect, his boundless energy did help in further disrupting Croatia’s play while Silva frequently came the highest up while pressing alongside Ronaldo. Also, the point of attack became the left back Strinic with Nani pitted with Portugal looking to spring quick counters in behind the space vacated by the Lazio man.
Croatia were now playing higher up the pitch and Portugal tried to find Nani with a clip over the top by Silva which resulted in him inexplicably shouldering the ball though he was nudged right after he made contact with his ball and it could have been a penalty. Then Ronaldo was found similarly but his control was slightly heavy.
As the midfield was packed, Croatia’s best attacks came down the wings with Strinic responsible for delivering a couple of dangerous crosses from the left wing. Srna too was bombing down the right wing contributing in getting numbers up the pitch. Their best chance though predictably from set pieces with Vida heading agonisingly wide from a Rakitic free kick.
The game more or less continued to be tight with extra time approaching as the teams adopted a ‘not lose’ mentality. There were no shots on target throughout the 90 minutes which was a first not only for these Euros but also for any major tournament since 1980.
Subdued star players
Two of the biggest names on the pitch, Ronaldo and Modric had contrasting games but the Real Madrid teammates were both contained. While Modric was stifled from playing his expansive passing game and starting attacks from deep, Ronaldo was rarely offered the service he is used to at club level and rarely got attacks going. It was the nature of the game which prevented both the players from playing their natural game and the match will soon be forgotten for its dearth in quality.
With two minutes of normal time remaining both managers made changes in their attacks. Kalinic finally replaced a clearly unfit Mandzukic while Mario was replaced by Ricardo Quaresma. Both were like for like changes keeping in mind the impending 30 additional minutes. In the second half of extra time, the hard working Silva was substituted by Danilo taking up his job of marking Modric while for Croatia, Marko Pjaca came on for Brozovic, immediately adding trickery and pace to go on surging runs down the right.
The game became frenetic as Croatia appeared to suddenly not wait until the penalties and both the full backs started pushing up to support Perisic and Pjaca. Vida had another glorious opportunity and with Rui Patricio nowhere near the ball, his header just needed to be on target.
But that was something the Croats couldn’t do all night. Perisic crossed across the face of goal and in the same move proceeded to hit the post after Srna’s cross but Portugal countered after Strinic had given the ball away.
It was the first time Croatia had committed so many players forward leaving a huge gap in midfield which was exploited by Sanches who drove the length of the field before laying off Nani. His weird toe-poke shot made its way to Ronaldo and Subasic could only save the first shot on target of the night before Quaresma scored the easiest goal of his life.
The final substitution was Andrej Kramaric who remains Leicester City’s record signing and his introduction for Corluka was one final desperate move. Vida had another chance in second minute of added time at the end of extra time but he hooked his volley wide, and his teammates were soon collapsing in tears.
Man Of The Match – Darijo Srna
Playing in his last major tournament, Srna had been one of the players of the tournament so far and was exceptional again on the night. He created the most chances on the night, 4 more than anyone else while also making the most tackles and also suffered the most fouls indicating that he was targeted in trying to stop Croatia’s play.
In one of the most forgettable games of the tournament, Portugal sat back deep and defended, squeezing the midfield and disrupting play frequently. There were 40 fouls in the game, and only the single yellow card was dished out which surely should bring Velsaco’s officiating under the scanner. The introduction of Renato Sanches brought some life into the game but for the best parts, it was a drab encounter with neither side willing to commit too many men forward.
"We were prepared," Santos added. "I got the team ready to fight against Croatia's strengths and to make the best of (exposing) their weaknesses. We didn't let them counter, we paid special attention to that."
The Iberians smashed and grabbed the win three minutes from the end of extra-time having not created anything significant in the 117 minutes prior to that. They become the only country to reach the quarterfinals at the last six European Championships and now have a real opportunity now to make it to the final.
Croatia’s exit meanwhile further highlights the deep-rooted problems of its Football Association which were protested by the fans in the 2-2 draw against Czech Republic. Having beaten the holders Spain in the previous round, much was expected of them and they failed to deliver.
Ultimately they couldn’t use their methods of counter attack against a team which refused to give them space to be countered upon. Cacic’s team selection as well as substitutions can be questioned, although doubts remain if the decisions are really his after all.