Spain add youthful swagger to familiar precision to make compelling Euros case

Dave Tickner
Spain celebrate their first goal in a 3-0 Euro 2024 win over Croatia
Spain celebrate their first goal in a 3-0 Euro 2024 win over Croatia

If we learned nothing else from the 2022 World Cup, we learned not to get too overexcited by Spain’s opening game at a major tournament.

Eighteen months ago they beat Costa Rica 7-0 in their first game and didn’t win another one. A draw against Germany was followed by a defeat to Japan that saw them lose top spot in the group before going out to Morocco on penalties in the last 16.

So, you know, let’s not go too far. But this third compelling victory in the first three games of Euro 2024 feels like the most significant.

Coming in the officially designated Group of Death and against a team that has been to the final and semi-finals of the last two World Cups, Spain’s first-half demolition job here was sensational. We are absolutely going to get a little bit carried away, and there is nothing you can do about it.

It’s easy to look at a team with an actual child on one of the wings against the most determinedly ancient football team ever assembled and declare this a victory for youthful energy. But it really did look like it.

It’s inevitable with Croatia that they will look awful old in any defeat, but we can’t remember them ever looking quite so very tired as this. They simply had no answer to Spain’s press in the first half, constantly trying to play through and around it but never ever looking like they had it in them. By the end of it, frankly, a lot of them looked in need of a nice nap.

Spain, for their part, appear a more compelling proposition than at any time since their 2008-2012 peak. There’s the usual tiki-taka pass-mastery that we’ve come to expect, but they’ve now combined that with Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams as absurdly fun old-school wingers.

And while it didn’t cause them too many problems here, they’ve also managed to put all that in front of an extremely questionable defence that showed in the second half just how this could end up all going wrong.

But that’s not the focus here. The focus here is on how they showed precisely how it could all go right.

Germany and Switzerland have already enjoyed what looked like perfect first-half performances in the last 24 hours, but this was better than both. Against a team of Croatia’s experience and tournament nous, Spain cruised and carved and galloped their way into a 3-0 lead that didn’t flatter them at all.

Rodri and Pedri were near flawless in the middle of the park, Alvaro Morata – not a unanimous pick for the No. 9 role in this Spain squad – edged himself further up the all-time European Championship goal charts and Croatia were swept away by a tide of precise passing, rapid transitions and relentless pressing.

Germany did enough to show they have emerged from their recent major-tournament funk. Switzerland justified Dark Horse Status. But Spain have shown us a team that could win the whole damn thing playing like this.

The two young wingers will get all manner of plaudits and fair enough. Both were superb. The ball from Yamal to set up the third goal for Dani Carvajal (his first international goal to go with one in the Champions League final a fortnight ago) was the crowning glory of a performance of elan and exuberance. Bringing everything back to England as one must, it all felt very Wayne Rooney 2004.

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The contrast with Croatia’s old warriors was impossible to ignore. Luka Modric won his first Croatia player of the year award the year Yamal was born. He remains an astonishing footballer at 38 but could do nothing to stem the tide here.

The second half allowed Croatia to emerge with something approaching dignity, but it felt far more like Spain luxuriating in the unexpected opportunity for some week-one energy-saving in what was supposed to be the toughest first-round group the tournament had to offer.

There was just time near the end for Spain to show that defensive fragility that lurks undeniably and really rather thrillingly beneath that slick attacking surface when Unai Simon dallied on the ball and was picked off.

Bruno Petkovic had the goal at his mercy but was tripped by Rodri as he shaped to shoot. It was a very weird penalty incident all round even before he then missed it before having his rebound effort disallowed for Ivan Perisic’s encroachment before squaring the ball back to him.

Michael Oliver gave Rodri only a yellow card, yet there was clearly no attempt to play the ball or make a proper tackle. What was less clear on the replays was whether there was any contact at all. There surely had to be for Petkovic to go down, but it did look like it might be a dive.

Either way, it felt like the only two options were penalty and red card or dive and no penalty or any card at all. Yet Oliver’s original decision stood, meaning what was actually decided was the one thing that clearly didn’t happen: Rodri attempting to play the ball.

It may seem like a minor thing, and in the context of this match it was. But Rodri missing the next game against Italy wouldn’t feel particularly minor at all, and one does have to wonder at what, precisely, was going through the Man City man’s head when he took such a wild risk with a red card and subsequent suspension given the state of the match.

But Rodri survived, Simon saved the penalty, VAR did the necessary with the rebound effort and Spain saunter off having become the third team in three matches to kick off their campaign with a resounding and compelling statement win.