Croatia vs. Spain will be a fascinating Round of 16 battle between two European powers that both started slow in their respective group stage matches, and will hope to be hitting their stride in the knockout rounds after closing out strong with emphatic victories.
Spain is definitely a team on the ascendancy after a dominant 5-0 win over Slovakia that finally dispelled the goal-scoring questions that have been hounding manager Luis Enrique. That most recent match saw three different scorers on top of two Slovakia own goals.
But Spain’s top forward Alvaro Morata, who received death threats after a missed penalty earlier in the game, didn’t factor among that group of scorers. That fact will only continue to ramp up the pressure on him, although Enrique has steadfastly defended Morata against the skeptics over the last month.
Just when things were also starting to look up for Croatia, a 3-1 winner over Scotland in its last outing, the national team was dealt a cruel blow with star winger Ivan Perisic testing positive for COVID-19, forcing him to miss the match against Spain. The Croatian team will have a competent replacement for him, but it will be difficult to make up for what he brings.
Who scores for Spain this time?
When you have a team as dominant in possession as Spain — the Spaniards controlled between 66% and 81% of possession in their three group games — the main topic of conversation is always going to come down to who puts it in the net.
Spain has been waiting for someone to step up to become the established go-to scorer of the team. Juventus forward Morata (above) is the current starting center forward, but while productive, he’s never been that kind of striker during his career. The media and fan base are nonetheless expecting him to assume the mantle, and until he puts away his chances regularly (he has 1 goal from his team-high 2.8 expected goals), the level of scrutiny he’s facing will not dissipate.
MORE: Top scorers at Euro 2021
Morata’s movement in the box should prove a useful tool to unlock the Croatian defense and his growing understanding with fellow attackers Gerard Moreno and Pablo Sarabia will result in increased production sooner or later.
Croatia missing star player
One of the reasons you wouldn’t be blamed for fading Croatia is the fact that perhaps their best player today, Perisic, will be sidelined for a mandatory 10 days and won’t be available again until the final. That’s a sucker punch to a Croatian squad, which is surely aware of what he means to the team’s Euro 2021 chances.
Perisic has two of his team’s four goals at the Euro 2021 tournament so far, and he’s a massive contributor to the Croatian attack from the wing position as a playmaker, crosser, finisher and aerial threat. He can improvise and make plays out of nothing, registering the team’s fourth highest “expected goals + expected assists” per 90 minutes at Euro 2021.
Expect AC Milan forward Ante Rebic to take over for Perisic on the left wing, especially if Bruno Petkovic maintains his starting spot at center forward. Bundesliga attackers Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim) and Josip Brekalo (Wolfsburg) are the other options, though with the amount of tracking back that will likely be necessary in the match, Rebic would seem to be the obvious starting option for his work rate.
Croatia will be competitive, hard-working and dangerous on attacking set pieces, and they have the individual skill to come up with the special, game-breaking play. If the 2018 World Cup finalists can somehow get the first goal, they just might find a way to win it.
Spain vs. Croatia odds & prediction
When you have as much consensus around a favorite as Spain is garnering, it makes you think twice. But there’s still too much to like about this matchup for Spain, which has a tournament-high +5.5 expected goal difference per FBref.
Even when (not if) Croatia sets up in a low block to protect its net, Spain has the players with the 1-on-1 ability, intricate passing skills, and above all, the patience to break through at the opportune moment. And if things aren’t working out, Spain has strong options off the bench which can provide a different approach to solving the Croatian defense.
But another reason to feel good about Spain is that Luis Enrique’s side is practically assured of dominating the midfield and controlling the ball. The Pedri-Busquets-Koke trio has too much soccer and mobility to be threatened by its Modric-Brozovic-Kovacic counterpart. And Croatia won’t be a threat in transition, which means that Spain can commit numbers forward.
This match might start out slow and tight, but Spain should wear down Croatia and once the first goal lands, more will likely follow.
Prediction: Spain 3, Croatia 0
Odds courtesy of DraftKings
- Croatia to win (90 mins): +575
- Croatia to advance: +260
- Draw (90 mins): +280
- Spain to win (90 mins): -167
- Spain to advance: -335
- Spain to win to nil: +140
- Spain -2.5 Shots on Target spread: +100
- Spain -1 Asian Handicap: +107
- Spain’s Alvaro Morata to score: +185
- Over 2.5 total goals: +114
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