Manuel Veth –
Croatia’s loss against Portugal is perhaps one of the biggest disappointments of the round of 16 and, before you ask, yes I did watch England vs Iceland. After the group stage, Croatia was tipped by many, including myself, as one of the potential candidates to reach the final of the tournament.
This was the case, especially because Croatia had won Group D ahead of Spain. In fact, Croatia beat Spain in convincing fashion in the last match of the group stage. Even further, Croatia had put in a fantastic performance in their first group match, a 1-0 victory, against Turkey, and then against the Czech Republic—the match ended in a 2-2 draw after Croatian fans staged a violent protest against the Croatian Football Federation (HNS).
Croatia’s Euro 2016 Performance Was Outstanding at the Group Phase
Finishing first meant that Croatia would face Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the round of 16. Portugal had a terrible tournament up to this point, as the Portuguese had managed just three draws in the Group stage—against Austria, Iceland, and Hungary—to finish the group in third place.
The respective performances of both teams in the group stage raised the hope in Croatia that the country could go all the way, especially given the imbalance caused by England and Spain finishing second in their respective groups, which meant that France, Germany, England, Spain, and Italy were all placed on one side of the draw.
Then, there was also the performance of Ivan Perišić, who had been one of the best players at the group stage in the tournament. Yet, at the game against Portugal on Saturday, Perišić, along with all of his teammates, had a miserable game. In fact, the only thing that stood out was Perišić’s haircut—the winger had a red and white checkerboard, the symbol of Croatia, painted on his hair.
Yet, Perišić was not the only one who had a bad performance; in fact, both teams had a horrible match, and some newspapers even claimed that Croatia against Portugal might have been the worst match in the history of the European Championships. This might not be to far from the truth, as the game lacked drive, scoring chances, or even proper passing.
Portugal was a Beatable Opponent
For those who had followed Portugal’s progress in the tournament, the performance of the Portuguese was not a huge surprise and, indeed, the Croatians must be blamed for allowing the Portuguese to force their game upon them. In a game almost completely devoid of action, everything was decided within a few minutes in the last ten minutes of extra time.
In the 113th minute, Domagoj Vida got on the end of a corner kick, but his ball sailed over the cross bar. Just a few moments later, in the 116th minute, Perišić received the ball in the penalty box, but his header hit the post. Portugal’s Renato Sanches gained control of the ball, and ran toward Croatia’s penalty box. He then played the ball to Nani, who in turn crossed the ball into the box to Cristiano Ronaldo. Croatia’s keeper Danijel Subasić saved Ronaldo’s shot, but the trailing Ricardo Quaresma managed to get the ball across the line.
Just a few moments before the final whistle, Vida again had a chance to score, but his shot from the penalty box missed the net and Croatia was out of the tournament. It was as if Croatia had gambled at FUN88, but had overplayed their cards. The country will now ask how this outcome could have happened, especially given the performance of the team during the group stage.
Croatia’s manager Ante Čačić, especially, will come under scrutiny, as the coach could be blamed for not exploiting Portugal’s weaknesses. Croatia’s offense struggled to properly penetrate Portugal’s defence, and it was obvious that the Croats felt much more comfortable playing from a strong defence—as was the case against Spain—rather than having to dictate the game.
Yet, this is unexpected, given the fact that, with Luka Modrić, Croatia possesses one of the brightest tacticians in the game. Modrić, however, was unable to decode Portugal’s defence which, despite having Ronaldo, was more than happy to let Croatia control the ball. As a result, Croatia had 59% possession of the ball, and played 713 passes, Portugal managed just 498. Croatia also won 65% of all tackles, yet the Croatian national team lacked the creative spark needed to punch through Portugal’s defence.
Ante Čačić Must Take some of the Blame
Čačić, therefore, must be blamed for the lack of a Plan B, as he didn’t manage to prepare his team to face a more defensive minded opposition. In his article for Futbolgrad, Tommy Piskor criticized that Čačić lacked the international experience to guide Croatia to the final rounds of the tournament. Piskor also believed that Croatia’s football is often too static, and this was certainly the case against Portugal on Saturday.
When asked after the match what went wrong, Čačić told the media: “What went wrong? Everything was perfect, except we didn’t score. We were not successful in attack, we expected Portugal to play on the counter.” Cacic added, “We controlled the match for 120 minutes, we didn’t concede any chances except the last one, when they punished our mistake. That’s football. The better team often doesn’t win, and this was the case tonight.”
Unfortunately for Čačić, goals are part of the game and, despite the fact that Croatia was better, the team certainly lacked a tactical plan to penetrate Portugal’s defence. It will, therefore, be interesting to see what happens next to the Croatian manager.
The fact is, the HNS is in the middle of a volatile period, as fans of both Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split have launched protests against the way the association is managed. Some of these protests have resulted in violence during matches (read more about this here). Hence, a debate over a new coach will add even further to the already existing problems.
Also, there is the general disappointment of having missed out on a real chance to go deep in this tournament. The setup of the tournament was such that the winner of the match would meet Poland, and then would face Belgium or Wales in a potential semi-final. All three of these teams would have been beatable opponents for Croatia, and whoever makes the final of the bracket of death—the other side of the quarterfinal playoff tree sees Germany vs Italy, and France vs Iceland—might be extremely worn down, and could therefore also be a manageable opposition.
Unfortunately, Croatia’s brightest generation since 1998 will now have to live with the fact that they squandered their country’s biggest chance to win a title. Perišić, meanwhile, will be showing off his checkerboard haircut on the beach rather than in the quarterfinal against Poland at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus