SPAIN UNLEASH HIGH-SPEED DEMOLITION OF CROATIA TO PUT TIKI-TAKA IN THE PAST

The game was only an hour in, and the seleccion would defend when they had to, but it was as virtually done even if there as still time for a moment’s silliness, a reminder of what can happen when the tension drops, when the concentration is not complete. A glimpse of how quickly it can be lost, of a familiar flaw. There were ten minutes left when Unai Simon lost the ball trying to play out and, with Bruno Petkovic preparing to roll the ball into an open goal, Rodri brought him down.

Simon made an exceptional save from Petkovic’s penalty but Ivan Perisic reached the rebound and gave it back to him to score. Or so he thought, until the VAR revealed that he had encroached. He had moved too fast. Ultimately, so had Spain. And that was a start, something a little different.

Related: Spain 3-0 Croatia: Euro 2024 – live

The talk had been of a twist on tiki taka, the evolution of an identity, ever since Qatar when for a second World Cup in a row there had been a thousand passes and no way though. Even Rodri, defender of a philosophy, embodiment of one too, had insisted on the eve of this opening game that there was no such thing as style. That was an exaggeration, a message of concentration and competitiveness for internal as well as external consumption, but it was true that in moments of more considered analysis, had said that this Spain sought something a little more direct. Vertical was the word he used. They wanted possession not for possession’s sake but with a purpose, a desire to do damage.

Which didn’t mean not being Spain. And to begin with while the smoke and the song belonged to Croatia, the Olympic stadium smelling of sulphur, the ball belonged to the seleccion. Pressed high, they dominated for quarter of an hour or so, not allowing Croatia out. Rodri was a model of recovery and recycling, the whole thing going round again and rapidly. Spain had not conceded the majority of possession since 2008 and it didn’t look like they were going to here. As the 10th minute arrived, they were running at 70%. And yet Croatia, used to playing the long game, football’s great resisters, might not have minded that. And anyway they would soon wrest a little control back.

As it turned out, Spain didn’t mind that. This is a team with the speed to run, and the players to release those that can. When Croatia started to play was when Spain were most effective. The first suggestion that might be so was when Marc Cucurella’s long, long diagonal almost saw Lamine Yamal get away, only to swipe at a shot. And then, after Ante Budimir just failed to reach a threaded ball and headed wide, just as Croatia approached again, Spain took the lead. Cucurella reached a loose ball, Rodri dropped it off and, first time, Fabian Ruiz set Álvaro Morata away. One on one with Dominik Livankovic, he finished neatly.

It had all happened so fast.

An equaliser almost came just as quickly, Simon immediately having to save from Mateo Kovacic. Instead, Spain got a second with similar speed. Again, a long diagonal beyond Croatia and into space started it. Yamal was the recipient and although he lost the ball as he turned into the area, it was recovered quickly, Pedri found Fabian and he turned right, then left, and guided a superb shot into the bottom corner.

Again, Croatia almost responded immediately; again, Simon saved, even more impressively this time from Marcelo Brozovic, and from the rebound Lovro Majer hit the side-netting with the goal at his mercy. Soon after there was another great chance for Croatia, Josko Gvardiol’s ball across going through Simon’s hands and somehow evading Budimir. At this point, Zlatko Dalic’s side had had more of the ball and more shots. Spain though had the lead and it would be even bigger before half time when Yamal’s lovely left-footed delivery was volleyed in by Dani Carvajal, sliding in like a striker.

Yamal, alone inside the area, might have made it four, only to be denied by an excellent Livakovic save. And when Croatia threatened at the other end, Cucurella made an exceptional block on Josip Stanisic. As the ball spun up near the line, Budimir heading goalwards, Simon punched away. Croatia might have wondered how Spain had scored three; they certainly might have wondered how they had not scored any.

Soon there were olés as the seleccion kept the ball, but that hadn’t been the story of the game. The answer, or part of it, was offered more by a couple of outstanding runs from Yamal, players left miles behind as he zoomed through.

For the first time in 137 games, Spain did not complete as many passes as their opponents, and they could not be happier. The last time the possession had not been theirs was the final of Euro 2008 when they beat Germany to begin the greatest generation in their history. This is another generation: this time, with no one left from Vienna and Yamal, the youngest footballer this competition has ever seen on the wing, they defeated Croatia 3-0 to give them the hope that maybe they can go back there one day in the not too distant future.

This was a new beginning, a new generation. And while it would be rule out another false dawn, it impressed. Fast, incisive, and effective, Spain opened the group of death with a flash of life, Morata, Fabian andCarvajal scoring to rack up a 3-0 victory before the first half was even out and to reinforce suggestions that there might be a different direction they can take.

2024-06-15T18:31:21Z dg43tfdfdgfd