The score was 1-0, the sequence of results that had brought the World Cup to Madrid. However, this was a performance full of small hairline cracks and, should England face Spain in the Donetsk quarter-final, this was a reminder that they are not invincible. The cheers, at the finish, were laced with relief.
Had Ivan Rakitic directed a free header better, Spain would have overtaken the Netherlands as the most shocking early exit from this tournament. Croatia, however, spurned their chance while Spain seized theirs.
A few minutes from the end of a tight, nervy affair, Cesc Fabregas produced a little overhead chip and there was nobody Vicente del Bosque would have wanted more to be on the end of it than Andres Iniesta, who drew the keeper and then squared the ball for the easiest goal Jesus Navas will score if his career extends to the 2026 World Cup. "It was a very difficult victory," the Spain manager reflected. "We suffered but at the end Croatia did too."
On Saturday evening at their base in Gniewino, in the soft folds of the Polish countryside, Del Bosque's squad had given a public exhibition on the football pitches beneath their hotel. It was Spain as football's Harlem Globetrotters, flicking and dancing with the ball as the wind turbines rotated on the hill above them almost in time with the sequences. Nevertheless, based on two of their three displays in Gdansk, Germany might fancy themselves should their paths ever cross and England, if they make the quarter-finals, ought not to be afraid.
For Slaven Bilic, Croatia's exit marked the end of his six-year road as their manager. His side had followed their game-plan as well as he might have expected, containing the Spanish knowing they would have an opportunity. Unfortunately, it was one they squandered and, as he departed for a surprising but lucrative contract with Lokomotiv Moscow, Bilic was not inclined to look back in anger.
In the first half, Sergio Ramos slid in to take the ball from Mario Mandzukic and caught some of the man and some of the ball. Now, however, was not the time to rage against fate. Bilic appeared resigned by it all. "When you play the world champions, they don't need help but they seemed to get all the little details in their favour, though it doesn't seem so important at the moment.
"I didn't want this to be my last match; I was sure we would go through. I knew that if it was 0-0 with 20 minutes to go, Spain would start to get nervous. But we didn't take our chance and I don't want to be bitter because it's not my style."
The Italian media had been obsessed by the suggestion that this match would be fixed. "200 million eyes on Croatia-Spain" was the front-page headline on Corriere dello Sport. You could argue that only in a nation where sporting corruption is endemic would they have a name for the pre- arranged 2-2 draw that would have sent both sides through. In Italy, they call it "fare il biscotto" or "to give a biscuit".
It refers not to Jammy Dodgers but the practice of doping horses with drug-laced biscuits. Bilic remarked at the end that what happened on the pitch demonstrated this journalism should be treated with contempt.
Nevertheless, Spain looked as though they might have been nobbled. Daniel Fahrenheit, the man who invented the thermometer, was born in the free imperial city of Danzig and, according to his scale, the temperatures around the PGE Arena fluttered around the mid-80s. The skies over the Baltic had been cloudless, the air was muggy and much of the first half was a heavy-lidded affair. As Bilic gave his farewell press conference, the air was split apart by thunder and lightning and the rain crashed down to create a suitably Wagnerian finale.
Spain had plenty of possession, three-quarters in the first 15 minutes, 69 per cent in the first half and slightly less in the second. It was what they did with it that frustrated. Their play was full of little errors, of the kind you would not expect from world champions. Then, 10 minutes from half-time, the big screens flashed the news that in Poznan, Antonio Cassano had put Italy ahead. The game had moved a big step closer to the edge. A draw, unless it was of the biscotto variety, would no longer see Croatia through. Something, somewhere had to give.
It should have come a few minutes after the interval when, finally, Croatia outflanked the Spanish back four. Tottenham Hotspur's Luka Modric raced down the right and delivered a cross for an utterly unmarked Rakitic that, but for the brilliant reactions of Iker Casillas, would have seen the champions staring, glassy-eyed, at elimination.
Man of the match Schildenfeld. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Croatia 40%. Spain 60%.
Attempts on target: Croatia 3. Spain 8.
Referee W Stark (Germany). Attendance 38,371.
- More about:
- Andres Iniesta
- Europa League
- Fc Barcelona
- Francesc Fabregas
- Slaven Bilic
- Stephen Carter