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Euro 2016: Croatia's win over Spain showcases the vicissitudes of football

The fortunes of Croatia and Spain have changed enormously since the two sides last met in almost identical circumstances in the 2012 Euros.

Spanish players
Spain has some of the best players in the world in what they do, but not in the way they used to

On 18 June, 2012, as German referee Wolfgang Stark blew his whistle to end the game, it also signalled the end of Croatia's stay at the European championships. In their final group game, needing a win or at least a draw to progress to the quarterfinals, they came up just short, losing by a solitary late goal.

A tense and nervy encounter had been settled just minutes earlier when Jesus Navas popped up with the winner in the 88th minute, after running onto a ball from Andres Iniesta. It was a hard-fought win for the Spaniards after an enthralling battle of football between their passing game and Croatia's counter-attacking style. They had come through, but only just. Luka Modric had a fantastic game in the middle of the park, almost singlehandedly taking on the might of the Spanish midfield, a performance bettered by only Iniesta, the man-of-the-match.

Ivan Rakitic went very close to scoring that night, only to be denied by a fabulous save from Spanish captain Iker Casillas in goal. Casillas was called upon again to deny Ivan Perisic’s drive soon after; had either or both of those gone in, history might have been different.

The loss sealed Croatia's fate, while securing Spain's position as group toppers. Italy had beaten the Republic of Ireland in the other game to leapfrog Croatia and finish second, a point ahead. Had the game between Spain and Croatia finished 0-0, we would have had a dead heat with Italy and Croatia level on points, goal difference and goals scored, with possibly a coin toss to settle matters.

Four years on, the same setting, the same opponent, but different circumstances and a different result. Croatia 2-1 Spain, the final score from Bordeaux, after a superb comeback from the Croats. Qualification wasn't at stake this time around, but there were other rewards. A chance to top the group, likely ensuring an easier opponent in the next round, and in the long run, an easier route to the final. Bigger still, a huge shot in the arm for this deep and talented bunch, to goad them on to bigger things.

In perhaps their best moment ever on the grand stage of the European championships, Croatia pulled off a stunning victory over the reigning two-time champions of Europe. This time around, Perisic’s drive wasn't blocked, as it slipped past David de Gea and into the net for the winner in the 87th minute of the game. Perisic didn't stop running all game, Croatia never stopped believing all game.

On the flip side, Spain faded and eventually faltered as the game went on. Iniesta was subdued and contained and there was to be no match-winning performance from the maestro this time. After a promising first 30 minutes, Spain failed to control the game thereafter. The second half was almost entirely Croatia's, with their keeper hardly being worked, barring the penalty save. It was Spain's first loss at this tournament since they were eliminated in the 2004 edition, having waltzed their way to the next two titles unbeaten.

Between Slaven Bilic four years ago and Ante Cacic now, Croatia have improved significantly, bridged a gap to the best in the world. At the same time, Spain have lost their sheen of yore, and look like they're missing a few pieces.

Cacic rings the changes to great effect

There was so much to admire about the Croatian performance. They were coming off a gut-wrenching draw against the Czechs, after having been 2-0 up and cruising. A combination of carelessness and crowd infractions had left them sullen. Yet a positive and bold approach led them to the most magnificent comeback, against a top team like Spain.

Cacic was bullish after the draw against the Czechs, publicly, and vehemently condemning those Croats in the crowd who chose to mess the game up for his side. And then proceeded to be more bullish in his team selection, with five of the starting eleven from the first two games dropped in favour of fresh, young faces.  Of course, the decision partly had to do with resting some of them seeing as that qualification was already in the bag, but part of it was perhaps also about sending a message – that he believes in the other members of this squad and any slackness like against the Czechs and your place in the eleven is gone. 

Cacic said after the game, “This was an important result for us. We beat the European champions, a really strong team, but it isn't about this one match. We are a very strong team, we can play anyone and try to be successful.

”Today I was able to change five players as I wanted to play the next round with fresh players and test some young players. That makes this result even more important. We wanted to win the group and we have achieved that.”

The replacements acquitted themselves really well. Striker Nikola Kalinic looked more potent and dangerous than Mario Mandzukic had done in both of his games, troubling Spain with his aerial ability in particular. He got the equalizer, heading in Perisic’s fantastic cross, just before half-time. Man-of-the-match Perisic continued his impressive tournament, continuing on from the qualifiers where he was the top scorer for his nation with seven goals. Four years ago, the absence of Modric might have left a gaping hole in the team; not so anymore with the emergence of Rakitic in the past few years. 20-year-old central defender Tin Jedvaj and 21-year-old winger Marko Pjaca showed no nerves of any sort with Jedvaj in particular looking very assured. 

Above all else, they have a fantastic leader in Darjo Srna, the experienced right-back, who provides great leadership to this team. Srna played in the game against the Czech Republic just hours after attending his father’s funeral, who passed away a couple of days before the match. 

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