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World and European Champions Spain booked their spot in the Quarter-finals of Euro 2012 with a hard earned 1-0 victory against a tough Croatian side in Gdansk on Monday. Spain dominated the contest in terms of possession and chances, but needed to wait until the 88th minute to score the winner as substitute Jesus Navas tapped the ball into an empty net to round off a move created in Barcelona thanks to some excellent play by Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta. The other Group C match tonight saw Italy register a comfortable 2-0 win against Ireland to take second place, thereby sending Croatia crashing out of the tournament. The Croats did not see enough of the ball today, and despite having some excellent chances, were second best for most of the contest. Spain will now be in action on Sunday, when they take on the Group D runners-up, a position currently being held by England.
Vicente Del Bosque refused to take the Croatians lightly naming an unchanged squad, the same team that dismantled a hopeless Ireland with a 4-0 margin. Fernando Torres retained his position in the side after the brace against Ireland and was flanked by Andres Iniesta and David Silva. Xabi Alonso was the defensive midfielder while Xavi and Busquets supported the front three.
Croatia went along expected lines, with Nikica Jelavic sitting out in favour of Danijel Pranjic as the manager preferred to pack the midfield leaving in-form striker striker Mario Mandzukic the lone man upfront. Croatia heavily depended on Luka Modricâ€™s creativity to unlock the Spanish defence while rumoured Barcelona target Vedran Corluka anchored the four man defence.
The favourites, Spain, kicked off the game looking to keep possession and stringing together passes in the midfield, something that suits their natural style. The Croatian midfield was up to the challenge though, and while Spain enjoyed possession in the opening minutes, nothing much came out of it. Croatia, through Mandzukic and Modric kept their fans interested but it was Iniesta who came close to opening the scoring. A lovely pass from Silva opened up the Croatian defence but Iniestaâ€™s clever shot was too weak to go past the keeper.
With not much happening, the game then saw a string of fouls as both teams looked to break free from a packed midfield. Darijo Srna was in particular lucky to escape a yellow card after having brought down Jordi Alba. Spain eventually regained control as Torres hammered a powerful effort at Pletikosa from a very narrow angle before Sergio Ramos and Pique had half chances to put Spain in front.
Pranjic brought the Croats into the game having run down the left flank. His shot though, was not strong enough to challenge the keeper. Mandzukic was next up with a chance for Croatia but Ramos was lucky to escape without a foul after having brought the striker down just inside the area. It was Vedran Corluka, who instead got a yellow for his protests.
The hardworking David Silva was clearly Spainâ€™s best player of the first half with his movement on the right flank troubling the Croats quite often. Both he and Xavi though, failed to feed Torres as Spain ended the half as they started it â€“ with lots of possession but nothing to show for their efforts. With half time approaching and their defence holding forth, Croatia were also aware that they needed to come back and score with Italy leading Ireland at Poznan.
The second half started just like the first with Spain continuing to boss possession. Fernando Torres was played through early by Iniesta, but Pletikosa was quick off his line to ensure that the Chelsea man never had a chance to get his shot away.
Back up the other end, Croatia created arguably the chance of the match thus far as Mordric went on a mazy run down the right flank and showed the intelligence to not just delay his pass, but to pick out a beauty for an unmarked Rakitic at the far post. Rakitic's effort though was kept out by the amazing Iker Casillas, who showed excellent reflexes to deny the 24-year old Sevilla man. Spain failed to clear the ball, and Rakitic had a second bite at the cherry while on the ground, only for his header to be hacked away.
A string of substitutions followed as Spain brought on Jesus Navas and Cesc Fabregas for Fernando Torres and David Silva respectively, while Nikica Jelavic, Ivan Perisic and Eduardo refreshed the Croatian attack.
Spain continued to have the ball, and seemed to be edging closer to score everytime they attacked, while Croatia were looking increasingly dangerous on the coutner attack with Casillas once again called into action to deny Perisic, found brilliantly by a Mandzukic cross.
In the last 10 minutes, both Iniesta and Navas tested Pletikosa at either near post, but the Croat keeper produced solid saves out would expect from an international of his quality. And it was that duo that finally broke the deadlock in the 87th minute though with more than a little help from Cesc Fabregas. The Barcelona youngster played a delightful chipped pass to put Iniesta through on goal, and the veteran unselfishly laid the ball on a plate for Navas to walk into an empty net.
It was a scrappy end to the match, but Spain hung on to ensure that top spot in Group C was their's, and also the reward of squaring off against whichever team finishes second in Group D. The game in Poznan finished 2-0 in favour of the Italians, and that meant that Croatia were forced into making yet another early exit from a major tournament. In fairness, Spain did dominate the game, but Croatia will rue missing two excellent chances that came their way in the second half.
Spain (4-3-3): Casillas (GK), Arbeloa, Ramos, Pique, Alba, Busquets, Alonso, Xavi (Negredo 89'), Iniesta, Torres (Navas 61'), Silva (Fabregas 73')
Croatia (4-5-1): Pletikosa (GK), Vida (Jelavic 66'), Corluka, Schildenfeld, Stinic, Rakitic, Vukojevic (Eduardo 81'), Modric, Srna, Pranjic (Perisic 66'), Mandzukic
Score: Spain 1-0 Croatia (Navas 88')
File Photograph Copyright: 2010 FIFA World Cup
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