The victory keeps Croatia’s hopes in the UEFA Nations League alive, and puts huge Spain in a position where their fate in the competition is now out of their hands. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Tin Jedvaj
Tin Jedvaj has seemingly been around for ages because he emerged as a teenager, first for Dinamo Zagreb, then Roma, then Bayer Leverkusen. Changing clubs that often did stunt his development some, and he never quite became the world-class force he should have.
But tonight, in what was just his 14th appearance for Croatia, Tin Jedvaj became a national hero. First, the basics: he defended very well. Spain got very little joy down his flank in the second half (and only a little joy in the first). That in itself is impressive.
Next, well, what can you say? To give Croatia a huge lead over Spain with your first ever international goal, showing up at the back-post to head home past David De Gea… what an indescribable feeling.
Jedvaj could have been satisfied with that, but after Spain equalised with a soft penalty then Croatia needed to win. So when De Gea palmed Josip Brekalo’s shot away you best believe Jedvaj was once again alive at the back-post to stab home his second goal and give Croatia a colossal win (to make it more impressive had, literally seconds earlier, created a golden chance for Domagoj Vida with a sublime cross).
Tin Jedvaj, take a bow son!
Loser: Sergi Roberto
On the one hand, failing up into the Spanish national side would seem to make Roberto a winner. After all no one with any degree of objectivity could look at Sergi Roberto’s recent performances for Barcelona at right-back (his best display was the 30 minutes spent in midfield vs. Real Madrid) and conclude he’d be worth a start for the Spanish national side. And yet, start he did.
But the thing is, bringing that level of uselessness to the international stage quite naturally carries with it the risk of being exposed as a defensive liability on an international level, and that is exactly what happened to Roberto in Zagreb. Croatia tortured him all night long, both with the ball (particularly through Ivan Perisic) and without it.
And that pressure eventually told in the second half. Sergio Ramos fed a poor pass out to Roberto but instead of holding the ball or feeding it back, the smart decisions, the defender tried an absurd clearance that was intercepted by Perisic. That interception saw the ball guided into the space behind Ramos, giving Croatia an easy 1v1 to take a shock lead.
Then right at the death, with Spain desperately holding onto a 2-2 scoreline amid great Croatia pressure, Josip Brekalo was winding up to take a massive shot and Roberto just sort of casually stood hopped in his direction to block the shot rather than charging out to close him down. Brekalo’s shot went unchallenged and while De Gea did save it, Croatia bagged the winner from the rebound. All because “Mr. 200%” closed a shot down with all the vigor of a 90-year-old doing Fortnite emotes.
Winner: Dani Ceballos
After going a goal down, Spain needed a hero and they needed one badly. Step forward, Dani Ceballos. The midfield maestro who returned to the starting XI after strangely only being on the bench against England (the half of football he missed being Spain’s worst so far under Luis Enrique is not a coincidence).
Ceballos took control. A pass in from Inigo Martinez was backheeled brilliantly to Iago Aspas, Ceballos then careened into the left-half-space with Isco, but as Aspas fed the ball in Ceballos drifted off Isco into the middle, opening up the final pass for a tap-in finish. It was a stunning goal showing how tremendous Ceballos’ footballing IQ was. Then immediately after drawing his side level he began demanding the ball, moving it faster and with greater purpose. It was a bad result for Spain, but Ceballos showed his class.
Loser: Alvaro Morata
It must be strange being Alvaro Morata, because you are technically and physically the perfect striker. But there’s something missing, mentally. The toughness and grit needed to really, consistently, express yourself and impose your will onto defenders.
Morata came on with Spain drawing 1-1, and the intention was obviously that his skill-set would unsettle Croatia and force them into errors. Well, that worked, it’s just that Morata being who he is, well, those errors weren’t punished.
First, when a Spain shot was deflected into the sky it seemed an easy job for Morata to saunter over to the far-post and head home the rebound, but for some reason the Spaniard’s header was down and soft, making Lovre Kalinic’s job very easy. Then second when Dani Ceballos curled a steaming shot at goal from 25 yards it was blocked… by Morata. It was just a miserable cameo that absolutely failed to have any sort of impact on Spain’s performance when they very much needed him to.
Winner: Andrej Kramaric
One of the big issues Croatia have to come to terms with after the World Cup is the lack of Mario Mandzukic in their XI. The giant striker retired from international football after the tournament in Russia, which meant that they needed to find a new reliable workhorse of a forward who could also score big goals.
Well, Kramaric has always been a workhorse and he showed his reliability against Spain. He made the Spanish back-line nervous with his pressing (dovetailing superbly with Ante Rebic) and made great forward runs. And when put through 1v1 by Spain’s defensive lapse, he nervelessly slotted the ball past David de Gea at the near-post, smashing down his intent to take Mandzukic’s spot.
For a team who spent the night gifting Wayne Rooney a fancy pants goodbye, England emerged from the game in Zagreb as huge winners. Had Spain managed to get the win then they would have qualified for the semi-finals and left England alone. Even a draw would have left England needing to beat Croatia by something like seven clear goals to overtake Spain’s goal difference?
Basically, all Spain had to do to qualify was not lose.
And, well, they lost.
Now the match on Sunday where England face Croatia at Wembley is a straight shoot-out for the semi-final spot. Winner takes it all, loser takes a fall, and a draw sends Spain through. It’s coming home!!