Football Features

Spain 3-0 Croatia: Yamal makes Euros history as youth and experience combine for La Roja

By CJ Smith

Spain 3-0 Croatia: Yamal makes Euros history as youth and experience combine for La Roja

Published: 19:01, 15 June 2024

Spain made the perfect start to their Euro 2024 campaign with a 3-0 thrashing of Croatia in Berlin on Saturday. 

La Roja are looking to improve on their semi-final appearance at Euro 2020, especially after crashing out of the 2022 World Cup to Morocco at the round of 16 stage. And based on the evidence on show at the Olympiastadion, they’re in the right mood to do just that.

Experience provides the platform for Spain

So often written off and maligned, it was Alvaro Morata who opened the scoring for Spain on 29 minutes, getting on the end of a Fabian Ruiz pass behind the defence and slotting calmly past Dominik Livakovic just as Croatia were starting to build momentum in the match.

For a player who has received so much criticism over the years, Morata boasts an incredible record for Spain, with this his 36th goal in 74 caps — only Fernando Torres (38), Raul (44) and David Villa (59) have scored more. What’s more, this goal allowed Morata to join Villa as the only Spanish players to score 10+ goals at combined World Cup and European Championships tournaments.

It’s that sort of record, coupled with his formidable physical presence, which is exactly why Morata is the Spanish captain right now and throughout the first half, he led by example, causing havoc for the Croatian defence. That he came out injured in the second half will be a cause for concern, and head coach Luis de la Fuente must hope it was merely Morata managing his own body.

Three minutes after the Atletico Madrid man’s opener, it was 2-0 as Ruiz added a goal to his assist, while Real Madrid legend Dani Carvajal finally opened his account for Spain right on half-time, just weeks after scoring in the Champions League final. 32, 31 and 28 were the ages of the goalscorers for Spain, who bring an understated amount of experience and know-how into this tournament.

The future is bright

Of course, the main focus of this Spanish squad ahead of the big kick-off has been their exciting young talents, with De la Fuente doing great work to integrate the next generation as early as possible.

Among the Spanish ranks are a 16-year-old, three 21-year-olds and 10 players with fewer than 10 caps. Predictably, it was the former who made the headlines.

Lamine Yamal has enjoyed an incredible rise over the past year, scoring seven goals and providing 10 assists across all competitions for Barcelona last season, becoming a regular starter despite not turning 17 until July 13th; the day before the Euro 2024 final. Yamal has seamlessly transferred that form to the senior international stage, with this his eighth senior cap after skipping out the U21s altogether.

And for anyone who somehow didn’t have Yamal on their radars, he announced himself at a major tournament with the assist for Carvajal’s strike. Already the youngest-ever player in Euros history, Yamal, of course, became the youngest-ever player to register an assist at the tournament.

This was, by the way, after Barcelona teammate and fellow wonderkid Pedri — five years Lamal’s elder — set up Ruiz for Spain’s second. The 21-year-old was withdrawn just before the hour mark with a 100% pass completion rate, three chances created and a 100% dribble success rate to go with his assist.

The future for La Roja is very bright indeed.

Is Croatia’s time at the top over?

It’s been a remarkable run at major tournaments for Croatia, who have taken silver and bronze medals from the last two World Cups while making it out of the groups in three of the last four European Championships — although their record in this tournament is disappointing by comparison.

But is their time among international football’s elite coming to an end?

We’ve already long since said goodbye to the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Mario Madzukic on this stage and very soon, the 38-year-old Luka Modric will be next. Alongside Modric in midfield was a 31-year-old Marcelo Brozovic now playing in Saudi Arabia and a 30-year-old Mateo Kovacic struggling for regular starts at Manchester City, while 35-year-old Ivan Perisic came off the bench.

It’s the last remnants of a golden generation for Croatia, who feel like they’re at the opposite end of the development spectrum to Spain, and it showed in Berlin.

The Checkered Ones were completely outrun and outmanoeuvred in their Group B opener, with Spain displaying a superior level of physical prowess to their tired opponents and catching them on the break time and again, despite only seeing 47% of the ball. Even Croatia’s consolation goal was ruled out with Bruno Petkovic’s penalty rebound chalked off due to encroachment in the penalty area.

We shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Croatia still have enough talent to take six points from this group and cause anyone a problem in the knockout rounds. But these early exchanges just don’t strike the same sort of fear into you as Croatia have done in the past.