Croatia and Czech Republic played out a 1-1 draw at Hampden Park to ensure Group D will go into its final round of games on Tuesday with all four teams in control of their own destinies. But Czech Republic, barring an unexpected turn of results, are likely to have secured their spot in the round of 16, at least as one of the top four third-place sides.
The neatness of that arrangement was tempered slightly by Euro 2020’s first contentious VAR decision. After a Premier League season saturated with tedious debate and outrage, 19 European Championship matches had passed without much debate.
However, 34 minutes into game 20, there was clearly accidental contact from Dejan Lovren’s elbow onto Patrick Schick’s face as the pair rose to contest a cross in the Croatia box. The game continued after the resulting clearance, but after referee Carlos Del Cerro Grande from Spain stopped play for Schick to get treatment after blood was pouring across his face, and he was urged to consult the VAR screen on the sideline.
After a minute of deliberation, he pointed to the spot, much to the anger of the Croatians on and off the field. Schick, nose bunged up, stepped up to score his third goal of the competition.
That lead would be cancelled out two minutes in the second half when Ivan Perisic’s sharp movement down the left allowed him to cut onto his right foot and shoot beyond. The Sevilla goalkeeper was a key contributor to his side’s 2-0 win over Scotland at the start of the week but was clearly at fault for going with his fists instead of palms to keep the strike out.
Croatia will be glad to get their points tally up and running but were disappointing in different ways to their 1-0 opening defeat to England. They were favourites coming into this tie, not that you could tell: the 26 Fifa ranking spots Czech Republic gave up to their opponents made up in greater effort and spirit.
And history held nothing of any real substance. These two have only met three times in the past, and this was only their second competitive tie: an entertaining 2-2 draw that Croatia spurned when 2-0 ahead.
The extra jeopardy on Croatia and coach Zlatko Dalic was palpable. There is a sense within Croatian football that the national team are losing their identity. Defeat in the 2018 World Cup Final was supposed to be both a marker of their quality and how much further they yearned to go. Yet the last 12 months have carried a sense of listlessness, with defeat to England their sixth in their last 10 competitive internationals.
From afar the problem for Dalic seems to be, well, hard to say beyond everything seems a bit tired. A bit old. All the same players, none of the same notes. The personnel that remain are deserving, and the XI here certainly had a more attacking twist with the inclusion of attacking midfielder Andrej Kramaric, replacing Marcelo Brozovic who had a knee injury, in a staggered central three of Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic.
But despite the possessing the superior passers, it was Czech Republic who were sleeker in possession: Jaroslav Silhavy’s men one-and-two-touching their way either out of trouble or into favourable areas. By contrast, Croatia lacked any urgency or will to exercise their superiority. And nothing typified that more in the first half than when the returning Lovren stepped up to put a free-kick well over the bar from 25 yards over as Modric stood by watching like a doctor thumbing through an in-flight magazine while the air stewards call out for medical assistance.
Lovren’s right elbow went on to have a bigger say. In turn Schick’s left foot as he sent goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic diving to his right as Bayer Leverkusen forward went into the other bottom corner. Compounding Croatia’s misery was a botched effort from Rebic just a minute later, put in on his left to go across goal but skewing wide of the near post.
To Dalic’s credit, he shook things up. Rebic and wideman Josip Brekalo made way for Bruno Petkovic and Luka Ivanusec respectively. The knock-on change was the moving of Perisic from right to left wing.
It was from here he concocted the equaliser: Kramaric’s quick-free kick setting him beyond his opposing full-back, West Ham’s Vladimir Coufal, before catching Vaclik out with a firm shot that required stronger hands than what were offered.
The rest of the second half contained a series of half-chances that could have gone either way. But the real measure of who the more satisfied came at the final whistle when the Czech contingent in the stands cheered louder, followed by the team lining up together to bounce in song. Meanwhile Croatia return to packed Hampden Park on Tuesday with plenty still to do.
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