In the pressure cooker that is Group C, no team is safe heading into the final game. Everyone expected Spain to assert its international dominance to sit atop the standings. What no one expected was for Croatia to control the group from the outset.
After winning its opening game against Ireland, Croatia was alone in first in Group C. But that lead only lasted but one game. Now Croatia and Spain find themselves tied for first, each with four points to their name and with eyes on advancing to the final eight.
However, with Italy lurking just two points back of the leaders, neither team can afford to drop the group finale. Italy will take on Ireland at the same time as the clash between Croatia and Spain. With their tourney hopes on the line, both teams need to pick up a win or else they could find themselves watching the final rounds from home.
Where: PGE Arena, Gdansk, Poland
When: Monday, June 11 at 2:45 p.m. ET
Familiar Territory, Unfamiliar Results
Coming off titles at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Spain has a long-established reputation as one of the premier squads in the world.
But tournaments cannot be won on reputation alone, and La Roja has not done enough to ensure their survival just yet.
Vicente del Bosque and his team were challenged from the beginning at Euro 2012, as Italy stifled the potent Spanish offense in a 1-1 draw. But forward Fernando Torres followed that up with a two-goal performance against Ireland, with David Silva and Cesc Fabregas getting in on the action as Spain bounced back with a 4-0 win.
Against Ireland, Spain showed the world that its attack is as dangerous as it has ever been. But even the four-goal outburst cannot erase the memory of Italy holding La Roja in check. Italy is no slouch of an opponent, but the fact remains: if it does not play up to its considerable potential, this Spanish team has shown it can be beaten.
Climbing the Mountain
Slaven Bilic has had a tumultuous tenure as the Croatian head coach, but he remains at the helm, trying to return his team to its former glory.
The once-great Croatian squad fell in the qualification stages for the 2010 World Cup, but it is rebounding valiantly in Euro 2012 thus far.
Forward Mario Mandzukic has powered Croatia's attack, scoring twice in a 3-1 win over Ireland and netting the equalizer in Croatia's 1-1 tie against Italy. Along with Mandzukic, forward Nikica Jelavic scored against Ireland and has been effective in the box. Darijo Srna, a defenseman and the Croatian team captain, has also been instrumental on the offensive end with his ability to set up opportunities for his teammates.
After a disappointing period in its team's history, Bilic's squad has rebounded to control its own destiny in Group C play. What remains to be seen is if Croatia can keep it going against Spain to advance.
It's All About Goal Differential
With Italy heavily favored against Ireland, both squads need to win to ensure they move on to the final eight. But it is possible for both Spain and Croatia to advance with a draw, with goal differential determining who keeps playing.
Spain is likely safe with a four-goal differential, but Croatia could be the odd-team out in a three-way tie. Croatia only has a two-goal differential so far, and Ireland has not lost by fewer than two goals in this tournament. If Italy can match Croatia in goal differential and goals scored (Croatia has a 4-2 edge), they will advance by virtue of a higher UEFA coefficient, and Croatia will be sent home.
With that in mind, Croatia will need to mind Italy's play as well as its own. The same goes for Spain if La Roja falls behind in the match. With both games starting at the same time, there will be as much drama in watching the scoreboard as in watching the pitch.
Prediction: Spain Wins 2-1
At the end of the day, tiebreakers will not save Croatia, as it will not be able to match Spain's firepower.
This Croatian squad has reasserted its ability to compete against the best teams out there, and it will give Spain a challenge. But from Fabregas to Silva to Torres to Xavi Hernandez, La Roja simply has too many weapons for Croatia to stop. The world champs will overwhelm the would-be world beaters.
With that, Spain will lock down first place in Group C, while Croatia will be at Italy's mercy. If Bilic's squad wants to continue its Cinderella run, it will need the luck of an Irish upset to send Croatia on and knock Italy out.
Because as high as the stakes are, this is only group play—the real challenge lies ahead.