Football Features

“Spain’s new Midfield Monarch” – Five things learned as Spain beat Croatia in excellent eight-goal thriller at Euro 2020

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 19:56, 28 June 2021

In a heart-stopping evening of football, Spain beat Croatia 5-3 after extra-time in the game of the tournament so far at Euro 2020.

What did we learn?

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1. Morata! Finally!

Alvaro Morata has played really well so far at Euro 2020. That’s obviously not the conventional wisdom but that’s because he’s a striker who has missed a hatful of chances, including a penalty, and when a goalscorer is so profligate that colours the view of their performance.

Morata excelled against Croatia, holding the ball up so well and linking with his team-mates brilliantly. He ran the channels well, dragging defenders around the place and was basically an ideal target for Spain; except he couldn’t seem to score.

Then in the 100th minute of the match, a scorching cross from Dani Olmo came over the top of the defence and Morata controlled it beautifully, but he brought the ball down onto his left so no one was really expecting him to score. Except he then unleashed an absolute thunderbolt into the back of the net to give Spain the lead for the second and final time in the game.

It was a genuinely stunning strike and he then ran Croatia ragged for the rest of extra time, showing great pace and skill (but not the same lethality in front of goal – that’s a trick he can only do once it seems). The goal was his fifth at Euros, which means he’s Spain’s joint-highest scorer at the Championships. The question is can he now carry it forward for the rest of the tournament and break that record? Let’s see!

2. Luka Modric vs. Sergio Busquets: The Superfight

Forget Mayweather vs. Youtubers, forget Fury vs. Joshua, Luka Modric vs. Sergio Busquets is the real superfight. These two have been taking turns as the best midfielder in the world on-and-off since Autumn 2016 and even as both are in the twilight of their careers they are still capable of absolute magic.

Busquets dominated the first hour of the match with an almost insulting ease. Bobbing and weaving away from Croat pressure like a seasoned prizefighter. But as he tired and began to try and see the game out, Luka Modric found that extra gear he kept on going to back in the 2018 World Cup and began swinging for the fences, driving Croatia back into the game.

Mislav Orsic coming on provided Modric with the running mate he needed to blitz Spain at the death and haul Croatia back into the game. Modric’s drive up the right started the goalmouth scramble that led to Orsic slamming home, and Orsic later crosses for Pasalic to equalise. A stunning moment born off the back of Luka Modric’s superb showing in the latest footballing superfight.

Given their age it’s no surprise that both men were exhausted in extra time and had little to offer besides one Modric foul on Pedri. Both were subbed, their bodies spent after yet another colossal clash with each other.


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3. Pedri the Boy King

As he lined up for Spain today, Pedri became the youngest-ever player to start a knockout match at the Euros, breaking Wayne Rooney’s record that has stood since Euro 2004. Of course that game didn’t go so well for Rooney as he got injured less than 30 minutes in, and after 20 minutes it looked like Pedri was also going to have a poor time of his record-breaking appearance when he scored a remarkable own goal when Unai Simon failed to control his backpass.

However unlike Rooney, Pedri was at least able to stay on the field and thus was able to turn it all around both for himself and his country. It seems impossible that a teenager could play with such authority, clarity and intelligence and yet here Pedri is, looking every bit as comfortable as veterans Sergio Busquets and Koke.

With Pedri’s running, movement and passing the Spanish were the dominant side. It was his delicious flick that unlocked the Croatia defence in the move that led to Spain’s equaliser and his drive and release that was the pre-assist to the go-ahead goal for Cesar Azpilicueta.

Then as Croatia made their assault at the end it was Pedri who was carrying the ball through lines of pressing to ease the pressure on Spain.  And again, in extra-time, as Koke and Busquets were subbed off Pedri remained on the field, a symbol of his importance to the side.

Emma Hayes was on co-commentary and was effusive in her praise of Pedri, saying: “watching him take up positions in play, just to create space for himself. But importantly what he does with his head before the ball comes near him; he’s constantly scanning [the pitch], he’s looking for the pass,” adding: “is there any pass Pedri can’t make?”

The answer is… probably not. Barcelona’s Boy King of midfield is fast becoming Spain’s Midfield Monarch as well.

4. Unai Simon and the power of redemption

20 minutes into the game Unai Simon took his eye off a Pedri backpass, scanning the field to pick his next pass, and the ball slipped by him into the net. It could have been the start of a shame spiral that could have consumed him, but Unai Simon is made of sterner stuff.

The Basque stopper played on and was thereafter supreme for Spain. He was calm and composed with the ball at his feet despite Croatia trying to test him in that regard. And then when it came to saving shots? Unai was unbelievable, pulling off a handful of saves that almost defied belief and kept Spain’s lead intact in extra time.

5. Lucho at the limit

Spain have now scored 10 goals in two games, and are the first team in Euros history to score five goals in consecutive matches. That’s impressive. They are back in the quarter-finals, that’s impressive. And today they passed not one but two gut checks, showing the confidence and composure to keep on playing their game their way despite being made to suffer by Croatia.

By all logical footballing narratives, Spain would now be considered to be serious contenders to win Euro 2020. With this newfound goal power and their mental resilience to go with their midfield mastery, how could they not be?

While Luis Enrique definitely has them playing superbly, he also has them playing at the limit. So yes, Pedri was amazing again, and yes Morata played well and scored a stormer, and yes he was right to leave out Gerard Moreno as Ferran Torres scored and got an assist and then substitute Dani Olmo bagged the two assists in extra-time to hand Spain the win.

Lucho got almost everything right, right? Sure. But look at the weaknesses. Eric Garcia adds much to Spain’s build-up play but he is such a defensive liability (whether that’s due to a lack of athleticism or a lack of match fitness, or both) that Luis Enrique literally had to sub him out even as Spain were defending a lead. And then Pau Torres came in and was picked on twice by Croatia for their two late goals.

All night long Spain were vulnerable to the Croatian counter-attacks and it was only a lack of quality from the likes of Ante Rebic that allowed Spain to get away with it. A better side with a fast forward (like, y’know, France) will likely make mincemeat of that back-line. So as good as Spain have been, Lucho has them at the limit.