JONATHAN SHALLARD REPORTING —- Spain beat Croatia 5-3 in extra time at Euro 2020 after earlier conceding a 3-1 lead in a thrilling round of 16 tie in Copenhagen.
Their heroes in the extra 30 minutes were centre-forward Alvaro Morata, who shrugged off so much social media abuse to score a nerveless fourth goal, and goalkeeper Unai Simon whose crucial save made amends for a costly first-half blunder.
Spain, three times European champions in 1964, 2008 and 2012 thus became the first team in the Euro finals to score five goals in consecutive matches after their thrashing of Slovakia in the concluding matchday of Group E.
Am own goal in which Simon was complicit had handed unadventurous Croatia an early lead but La Roja levelled before the break through Pablo Sarabia then went ahead in the second half courtesy of Cesar Azpilicueta and Ferran Torres.
They appeared comfortably in command until two late goals out of nowhere, from substitutes Mislav Orsic and Mario Pasalic pulled Croatia level at 3-3 and forced extra time. Spain then regrouped to power back into the lead through Morata and Mikel Oyarzabal.
Until the last crazy minutes of normal times Spain had been well worth their advantage, even without playing particularly well against a country who had never won a knockout tie at the European Championship finals.
Croatia’s attack badly missed Ivan Perisic, who had tested positive for Covid-19, but they appeared short of self-belief and their defence grew increasingly ragged the longer the game ran on.
Spain had dominated from the start with some pacey attacks which stretched the Croat defence. Koke, running clear in the middle, was denied by goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic then Alvaro Morata wasted a chance of a close-range header.
The ball ricocheted away off the arm of centre back Domagoj Vida but VAR judged it accidental and play continued.
Croatia then, remarkably, took the lead – though the goal was none of their doing.
Spanish midfielder Pedri hit a long hard back pass to Unai Simon and the goalkeeper, perhaps taken by surprise, kickedat it but only sliced the all on into his net for the ninth – and most bizarre – own goal of the tournament.
The goal inspired Croatia, briefy, to attack for the first time. Ante Rebic shot into a side net and then Mateo Kovacic planted an effort over the bar.
Spain, however, recovered their balance and equalised in the 38th minute. A left-wing raid ended with Ferran Torres having a fierce shot only parried by Livakovic so Pablo Sarabia could thump home from close range.
In the 57th minute Spain struck again.
Chelsea’s Azpilicueta headed them in front when he turned up on the edge of the goal area to plant a towering header into the net from Ferran Torres’s left-wing cross.
The Manchester City forward had been played into space by the increasingly dangerous Pedri.
Ferran Torres then scored the third himself, dashing forward unchallenged from way out on the right wing before side-stepping Josko Gvardiol and shooting easily past the abandoned Livakovic.
Croatia appeared dead and buried but fashioned a glimpse of revival after substitute Orsic jabbed the ball across the line in a goalmouth scramble sparked by the ever-active Luka Modric. Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir awarded the goal on the automated signal from goal-line technology.
Inspired into one last effort, Croatia equalised when Orsic’s left-wing cross was headed home by Pasalic in the second minute of stoppage time.
Croatia might have grabbed the lead early in extra time but Simon redeemed himself with a sharp stop from Kramaric before Spain killed the game with two goals in four minutes from Morata and Oyarzabal.
Sergio Busquets, Spain captain: “To get to the quarter-finals is an indication that we’re a good team. We were very good today, very intense, well prepared and we beat a very, very difficult rival. We are growing throughout the tournament.”
César Azpilicueta, Spain defender: “Boy, we had to suffer there. It’s been a few tournaments since we got through a knockout match. But today we ‘broke the ice’ against the World Cup runners-up.”
Mislav Oršić, Croatia winger: “First, I would like to thank the fans – it was a pleasure to play in front of them. We fought until the very end, but they scored from almost every chance and deservedly won.”
Luka Modrić, Croatia captain: “At the start of extra time we had them on the ropes but we failed to score from two good chances. Then the game turned around and we didn’t have the strength to come back.”
Croatia: Livaković – Juranović (Brekalo 74), Vida, Ćaleta-Car, Gvardiol – Modrić (Ivanušec 114), Brozović, Kovačić (Budimir 79) – Vlašić (Pašalić 79), Petković (Kramarić 46), Rebić (Oršić 67).
Spain: Unai Simón – Azpilicueta, Eric García (Pau Torres 71), Laporte, Gayà (Jordi Alba 77) – Koke (Fabián Ruiz 77), Busquets (Rodri 101), Pedri – Ferran Torres (Oyarzabal 88), Morata, Sarabia (Olmo 71).
Referee: Cakir (Tur).