By Samindra Kunti in Rotterdam
June 19 – Spain won the Nations League for the first time, 5-4 on penalties, to add to their trophy cabinet and break Croatian hearts.
Croatia’s golden generation remain without a major trophy in international football.
In a high-intensity game, embodied by Luka Modric who kept covering ground until the very last minute after a long season, Spain edged their opponents from the penalty spot after a goalless 90 minutes and extra time.
The Croatians transformed Rotterdam into a ‘Zagreb on the Maas’, taking over De Kuip Stadium with a mass invasion of around 35,000 supporters, turning the ground into a giant red-and-white checkerboard. They stood on their feet for much of the opening 30 minutes as they watched Spain take control before their team wrestled it back, often with Ivan Perisic overlapping from his full-back position. Each side enjoyed a major opportunity before the break.
In the 12th minute, Gavi, the beating heart of the Spanish team, collected the ball on the edge but he dragged his side-footed attempt inches wide, while, Andrej Kramaric, through on goal, blasted his shot over. Croatia should have made more of their counterattacking options, but, by half-time, neither side had found the breakthrough. None of Spain’s three attempts were on target.
With Perisic and Luka Ivanusec, Croatia kept targeting the right side of Spain’s defense while pressing high, but the first major opportunity of the second half fell to Marco Asensio, who timed his header from Jordi Alba’s cross badly. Zlatko Dalic’s team responded with a side-netted header by Mario Pasalic. Even though Croatia always seemed on the verge of the breakthrough, perfectly cutting off the opponent’s passing lanes, Spain were more dangerous when Rodri, largely invisible, thundered a shot wide from a distance.
Croatia probed but struggled to find that defense-splitting pass and again Spain came close at the other end but Ivan Perisic cleared substitute Ansu Fati’s close-range attempt off the line in the 86th minute. On the bench, Spain’s players had leapt up but the youngster could not convert the best chance of the match. With Croatia dropping deeper and deeper, extra time was now inevitable.
The Croatians were of course experts in grinding out another 30 minutes, having won six of their last seven matches that went to extra time or penalties. However, they lost in extra time to Spain at Euro 2020. Against the Netherlands, they scored twice after the 90 minutes, but the Croatians couldn’t repeat the trick. Substitute Lovro Majer got in behind the Spanish back line but he dawdled on the ball and Nacho intervened with a precise tackle.
Bodies tired, nerves frayed and Daniel Olmo should have won it for Spain, but somehow penalties felt inevitable.
After Lovro Majer missed his penalty, Americ Laporte squandered the first opportunity to decide the final, but Dani Carjaval did not make such a mistake the second time around.
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