Spain leave it late to ensure top billing

Spain 1 Croatia 0

Spain needed a late goal from Jesus Navas to ensure their passage to the European Championship quarterfinals, beating Croatia1-0 tonight to finish first in Group C.

Spain finally broke open the Croatia defence after wasting a number of late chances as Cesc Fabregas lobbed a through ball for Andres Iniesta. The Barcelona midfielder controlled the ball before flicking a short pass over to Navas, who kicked the ball into an empty net in the 88th minute. 

"We played to the end and we deserved the win," Navas said. 

The defending champions dominated possession as expected but failed to create many clear opportunities at the Arena Gdansk. On the other end, Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas made a pair of clutch saves in the second half. 

Spain, which is trying to win its third straight major title, will next face the second-place team in Group D on Saturday in Donetsk, Ukraine. 

Navas' goal came moments after Iniesta and Fabregas failed to convert late opportunities, with the European champions guilty of trying to string together one too many passes. 

Croatia could have reached the quarterfinals with a victory. Casillas, however, made a reflex save on Ivan Rakitic's header in the 59th minute and then punched out substitute Ivan Perisic's low volley in the 79th. 

Casillas was Spain's steadiest player in defence as the backline was often troubled in the second half by balls into the box. 

Spain appeared to be more hesitant than against Ireland, but more attacking than against Italy. Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso often dropped back to let fullbacks Alvaro Arbeloa and Jordi Alba surge forward in attack. 

The Spanish defence also did well to shut down Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic, who scored three goals in the team's first two matches. 

AP

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