The win puts Spain firmly at the top of their UEFA Nations League group and registers as Croatia’s worst-ever defeat. It was an incredible display from La Furia Roja in just their second game under Luis Enrique. Who were the night’s winners and losers? Read on and find out!
Winner: Marco Asensio
There’s a bit in Die Hard when an explosion shakes Nakatomi Tower and one of the terrorists exclaims “they’re using artillery on us!” to which chief bad guy Hans Gruber dryly replies “you idiot, it’s not the police. It’s him.” And what we didn’t know until this day is that Hans Gruber was talking about Marco Asensio this whole time.
There are some players who, when they’re in space about 30 yards from your goal, you close them down in a hurry or be prepared to get, well, shelled. Asensio is one of those players as Croatia found out to their misery just after the half-hour mark. They let him have space and he screwed the ball into the back of the net with terrifying accuracy.
Literally two minutes later, Asensio was again unmarked and this time smacked a stunner off the bar. The ball deflected down onto the goalkeeper and in, because when things are going for you they’re going for you. Asensio then took a break from the shooting range and in the second half clocked up three great assists (no, seriously) to let Spain turn a comfortable win into a historic thrashing.
Loser: Luka Kalinic
As impressive as it was that Spain scored six goals, a fair amount of fingers must be pointed at Croatia’s goalkeeper Luka Kalinic. Obviously Croatia couldn’t live with the Spanish even with their supreme midfield containing Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, so it’s hard to be too harsh on Kalinic – especially given how desperately unlucky he was to concede an own goal for Spain’s third. But ultimately he just didn’t get near to any of the goals. His efforts to stop them were meek and feeble; one feels if Croatia had Danijel Subasic in goal there’s no way they would have been hammered like this.
If the game against England was Saúl’s coming out party, where he announced himself on the international stage, then tonight’s performance in Elche was both a literal (Saúl was born in Elche) and figurative homecoming parade. Saúl was stupendous against England. It was quite ridiculous to behold actually; how did this guy only have 10 caps before Luis Enrique took charge?
Saúl was everywhere, but in a controlled way. He ran with the ball when he had to. he passed when he had to, and he offered cut and thrust in the final third. His late run and towering leap to thump home Spain’s opening goal was just poetry in motion, and his pass between the lines to release Asensio to provide the assist for Spain’s fourth goal was positively Busquets-esque.
Saúl seems like a player born to play under Luis Enrique. Committed, technically and tactically terrific and hard as god damn nails. He will be the avatar of his coach on the pitch and the leader of this new Spain side.
Loser: Ivan Santini
It’s absurd to think now, but Spain didn’t start this game very well and in all honesty should have been behind when they managed to make it 1-0. Croatia began the game very brightly, pressing high and looking to disrupt the Spain passing rhythm.
The thing with that strategy is; you have to take your chances when they come because you can’t play that intensely for very long. And true to form Croatia flagged quite badly, which is partly what led to their utter capitulation. But they also had a huge chance to take, and didn’t.
Ivan Santini, playing up-front in the now-retired Mario Mandzukic’s shirt number, saw a cross come in from the right and he stole a march on the Spanish defenders. He had a clean look at goal and somehow put it wide. No great De Gea save, no epic Carvajal block, nope. He just put it wide. Had Croatia taken the lead, who knows how Spain would have reacted? We could have seen a totally different game!
Winner: Luis Enrique
Two games played, two games won, eight goals scored and just one conceded. It’s been a comfortable start to life in the managerial hotseat for Luis Enrique, who has almost instantly shown how adept he is for this type of management.
Never a great tactical mind, Luis Enrique’s best attributes are man management, physical fitness and imbuing his teams with an indomitable will to win. This is exactly what you need to be a great international manager and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Spain kicked on under Lucho to regain the title of the best side in the world. No one will want to face a team whose technical excellence is matched by their absurd confidence and ruthless desire to dispatch opponents.
Loser: Luis Rubiales
Remember when Spain looked like the best team going into the World Cup? Remember how they shot themselves in the foot on the eve of the tournament by sacking their coach Julen Lopetegui? Spain got worse with each passing game as their proximity to Lopetegui grew more and more distant, the caretaker coaching of Fernando Hierro didn’t cut it.
This game tonight showed that when coached by a good manager, a focused leader, there are precious few sides on the planet who can live with Spain. Croatia were World Cup finalists and got dismissed with nary a moment’s pause. And a focused leader is exactly what they would have had in the summer had Luis Rubiales kept his ego in check and not sacked Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup. His reasoning was sound, but in the end this game proves that all he did was rob Spain of a tremendous chance to win their second World Cup.