Redemption for Unai Simon and Alvaro Morata and relief for Spain. A goalkeeper who had made a hideous error recovered to make two sensational saves, a forward who had been abused by his compatriots for misses earlier in the tournament scored an extra-time goal and a team who had not won a knockout tie since the Euro 2012 final are now quarter-finalists. Their wilderness years may be over.
The outstanding match of Euro 2020 featured some dreadful defending and perhaps its finest fightback, from Croatia, but it was in vain.
The 2018 World Cup finalists were eliminated when Morata and Mikel Oyarzabal scored in the space of four minutes, the striker rifling a half-volley into the roof of the net and the substitute slotting home. Spain, who started the tournament unable to score, had five goals in a second successive game.
They started by giving away a goal in ludicrous fashion. Spain had benefited from what was Euro 2020s oddest own goal when Slovakia’s Martin Dubravka palmed the ball into his own net.
They then donated a still stranger one themselves. Rather needlessly, Pedri directed and overhit a pass back from 49 yards. Simon should still have controlled it comfortably. Instead, it flicked the top of his boot on its way into the net. Only Patrik Schick had ever scored from a longer distance in this competition, though Pedri had rather less to celebrate.
This was an inauspicious way for him to take Wayne Rooney’s record as the youngest player to start a game in the knockout stages. To his credit, he excelled both before – setting up a chance for Koke with a defence-splitting pass – and after.
Luis Enrique has showed a willingness to rethink his plans and reaped a reward as Spain responded. Their leveller came from two players who did not start the tournament in the team. Jose Gaya had a shot parried by Dominik Livakovic and Pablo Sarabia converted the rebound for his second goal in as many games.
Then Cesar Azpilicueta, who had been in international exile since 2018, scored a belated first goal for his country, eight years after his debut. The occasional scorer popped up to head in Ferran Torres’ cross after a Pedri pass.
Croatia then seemed beaten when they conceded a third goal in shambolic fashion. They left the influential Ferran Torres utterly unmarked to meet a cross-field pass from his namesake Pau Torres. The winger supplied an accurate finish.
But Croatia’s replacements conjured a comeback. Their second goal came from a combination of them, Ante Budimir having a shot blocked on the line by Azpilicueta before the catalytic Mislav Orsic bundled the ball over the line.
Their third came from two: Orsic turned supplier by whipping the ball in from the left flank and Spain, who struggled to cope with crosses, left Mario Pasalic unmarked to head in. Croatia were lacking the talismanic Ivan Perisic, who was sidelined after contracting coronavirus, and yet, driven on by Luka Modric and given an injection of energy by their reinforcements, they rallied wonderfully.
Simon had to make wonderful saves from Josko Gvardiol and Andrej Kramaric before the Spain substitute Dani Olmo produced two brilliant crosses. Morata and Oyarzabal capitalised and, in breathless style, Spain progressed.