By Samindra Kunti in Rotterdam
June 14 – Croatia never do things the easy way, but they do enough and did so again to stun the Dutch with a 4-2 extra time win.
Extra-time goals from Bruno Petkovic and Luka Modric propelled the East Europeans to their first-ever Nations League final against the Netherlands.
The hosts found Croatia’s resilience out the hard way. They had been warned – just ask Japan or Brazil about their experience at the 2022 World Cup. Croatia’s never-die attitude prevailed again when Petkovic’s superb 98th-minute strike and Modric’s 116th-minute penalty conversion killed off the Dutch challenge.
The Croatians had fought back from Donyell Malen’s first-half strike before Noa Lang’s 96th-minute goal forced extra time.
In a tense first half, the Netherlands found the breakthrough with a slick 34th-minute goal, the result of playing through tight spaces with Matts Wiefer teeing up Donyell Malen for a powerful, precise finish. Xavi Simons and Cody Gakpo also had a foot in the goal as coach Ronald Koeman bet on a youthful forward line to compensate for the absence of talismanic striker Memphis Depay. De Kuip erupted, cheering the in-form Dortmund player and overwhelming the raucous away support of some 15,000 Croatians.
A Dutch side with captain Virgil Van Dijk the only player over thirty very much had held their own against the experienced Croatians who tried to dictate the play with quick, short passing by midfielder Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic. However, opportunities came at a premium. Modric had the ball in the net but in the build-up play, Mario Palasic had floored Nathan Aké with a mistimed overhead kick. Teun Koopmeiners blasted an attempt over from an acute angle.
It was a different Dutch side from the laboured and sometimes lethargic outfit in March, but the youngsters’ flair faded in the second half.
Inexperience cost the Netherlands when Gakpo dribbled near his own box, was dispossessed by Modric and fouled the midfielder with Andrej Kramaric converting the penalty to draw level in the 55th minute. With the momentum on their side, the Croatians monopolised possession and Ivan Perisic came close with a volley from a magnificent cross by Modric, whose gossamer passing was simply too much for the hosts to deal with.
But he had no touch in Croatia’s second goal. Instead, Luka Ivanušec’s low cross picked out Pasalic, whose first-time finish found the bottom corner in the 72nd minute. The winner had been a long time coming for the Croatians, who denied the Dutch the chance to develop any rhythm. In injury time, the ball fell to Gakpo, the anti-hero who had also wasted an opportunity midway in the second half, but his shot bobbled wide. Dominik Livaković saved Nathan Aké’s spectacular bicycle kick, but substitute Noa Lang’s opportunistic volley proved too much, 2-2.
The Dutch should have seized the initiative, but again the Croatians showed more desire and it was fitting that Modric provided the assist for Petkovic’s goal.
They had been hungrier for victory, for the chance to compete in the Nations League final and win their first prize in international football.
In a madcap finale, Modric converted Croatia’s second penalty to crown a night that ultimately belonged to the superior side. On Sunday, they will return to De Kuip for the final against Spain or Italy.
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