Euro 2024: Spain show their credentials by thumping Croatia

BERLIN, Germany — Spain fans were outnumbered in Berlin and have generally been overlooked ahead of the start of Euro 2024, but on Saturday they produced a performance against Croatia that leaves them in a strong position in Group B as they target a fourth European Championship trophy. Whether they fully deserved to win 3-0 at the Olympic Stadium will be debated, but first-half goals from Alvaro Morata, Fabián Ruiz and Dani Carvajal sealed a victory that silenced the partisan atmosphere created by the roughly 50,000 Croatian fans among the 70,000 crowd.

Heading into the competition, there was an air of uncertainty about this Spain side and how the old and the new would gel together. Young wing wizards Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams supply the excitement that must blend with the consistency — an often underrated quality — and experience of national team stalwarts like Morata and Carvajal.

Already in this tournament, Spain showed a clear comfort level with having less possession while attacking quickly when the moment arises, and it all came together perfectly in the first half against Croatia. Morata netted his seventh goal in the Euros, drawing him level with Alan Shearer and Antoine Griezmann as the tournament’s all-time third-top scorer, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo (14) and Michel Platini (9). Paris Saint-Germain’s Ruiz had assisted the first and then scored the second himself following some fine footwork, yet somehow it was Yamal whom all eyes were once again focused on.

On the day he became the youngest player to ever play in the Euros (16 years and 338 days), the Barcelona forward also became the youngest to ever set up a goal. Cutting on to his outrageously good left foot late in the first half, he whipped in a brilliant cross that Carvajal turned home. It was a gift for the Real Madrid right-back and a nice present for Yamal’s dad, too, Mounir Nasraoui, who was celebrating his birthday in the stands.

From there, it quickly became the “Yamal Show.” He should have scored when he was set up by Pedri after the break, a stunning save from Dominik Livaković keeping him out. He almost set up a second for Morata after receiving a short corner from Williams, and he had the beating of Manchester City’s Joško Gvardiol, playing at left-back, for pace all game long.

“Lamine just keeps on breaking records,” Spain coach Luis de la Fuente said post-match. “He’s maturing and growing every day and is on the path to be a truly great player.”

Heavy defeat was not what the significant Croatia contingent had come to see but one day they may look back and fondly remember when they witnessed Yamal for the first time. Some estimates claimed up to 100,000 Croats were in Berlin for the game, and it did feel like that at times, with the masses of people in red-and-white checks filling every crack of the city during the day.

They had come to watch someone at the opposite end of their career, 38-year-old Luka Modrić, provide more magic. It may still happen for the midfielder at his ninth major tournament, but it will have to wait for now.

Modrić, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic did win the possession battle in midfield, but were unable to properly control the game against the energetic trio of Rodri, Ruiz and Pedri. Despite that, Zlatko Dalić’s side had chances. Unai Simón saved from Kovacic and Brozovic within seconds of Spain’s first two goals, Ante Budimir was inches from getting on the end of a Gvardiol cross and Spain left-back Marc Cucurella made a stunning block to deny Josip Stanišić.

In the end, not even a penalty would yield consolation for Croatia. Bruno Petković, fouled by Rodri, saw his spot kick saved by Simon, who had made a mistake in the build-up to the penalty. Petković did score from the rebound but it was disallowed because Ivan Perišić, who returned the ball back across goal, had encroached.

Croatia actually ended the game with a better xG than Spain (2.27 to La Roja’s 2.11), more possession and more shots. That might mean little to them and their fans in the moments after the loss, but it may give hope to Spain’s next opponents, Italy, Albania and whoever may follow in the knockout stages.

However, teams must also be wary of Spain’s new-found variety. In the past, La Roja have been deemed too predictable, too pass-heavy and lacking alternatives in the attacking phase. That is no longer true. Yamal and Williams not only do damage themselves, but they attract defenders to them that creates space for others. That movement is perhaps why such a big gap opened up for Morata to score the first goal.

From here, the question as the tournament progresses is obvious: what is the cost for their new directness? Against Croatia, they had less possession than their opponents (47%) for the first time in a competitive match since the Euro 2008 final against Germany (46%), ending a run of 136 such matches with the majority of possession. Croatia were unable to take advantage of their possession, but other teams may. Get behind Rodri, who was booked Saturday to be one caution shy of a suspension, and opportunities could await.

What is clear, though, is that Spain will not be forced to stick to the style that characterised their “golden era” between 2008 and 2012 that saw them win a World Cup and two Euros crowns. Rodri said as much before the game, explaining that “whatever style wins matches” will be deployed during the tournament. That was evident against Croatia as they made a compelling case as to why they will end up back in Berlin for the final on July 14.