Spain Reaction: Saint Iker Saves the Day Once Again Against Croatia
La Furia Roja, the dominating force in world football for almost four years now, employs a Barcelona-esque approach to games, wearing opponents out with their tiki-taka system of short passes and exquisite movement.
So thorough are they in the attacking half with their scheme that opponents go minutes on end without the faintest touch on the ball. That was the case Monday against Croatia, whom Spain needed a victory to assure themselves passage into the knockout stages.
But for most of the match at the Gdansk Arena, Spain lulled viewers to sleep. It wasn't so much that their football wasn't attractive, there was simply an underlying sense of complacency that seemed to have seeped into its players.
Their runs weren't as crisp, their passing, while sublime, rarely put a fastidious and courageous Croatian defense under pressure. Fernando Torres, the embattled striker who seemed finally to have turned the corner with his brace against Ireland on Thursday, was nonexistent once more before making way for Jesus Navas in the 60th minute.
And through it all, Iker Casillas waited, patiently, on his end line. The camera passes along him so infrequently during matches he could almost engage in a bevy of illicit activity. But he remains resolute, knowing that Spain, as Barcelona were before them against Chelsea this past club season, can be exploited on the counterattack.
But then, almost out of nothing, Croatia began building a head of steam. They were more frequent in their forays into the Spanish half than had Chelsea been against Barcelona, and at times, they even threatened to be more incisive.
The crescendo of their movement came in the 59th minute when the superb Luka Modric stole away down the right flank before squaring up against left-back Alvaro Arbeloa. Modric cut back once, twice before looking up and picking out teammate Ivan Rakitic's run at the far post with an inch-perfect cross with the outside of his right boot.
The ball floated for what seemed an eternity before Rakitic met it with a forceful header.
And here, "Saint Iker," as he is known by his adoring Spanish fans, saved the day once more. The header wasn't the best—had Rakitic nodded it down, it likely would have been a goal—but Casillas produced a reflexive save and parried the shot away from goal, where it was promptly cleared.
It was a wake-up call for Spain. For all their extended dominance in possession, their European Championship very nearly came to a crashing close by way of a bit of brilliance from Modric.
But thanks to Casillas, it did not. Keep an eye peeled on the Real Madrid shot-stopper who seems to have been around forever (he made his full debut for the national side in 2000, and is still just 31 years of age—relatively young for a keeper), as Spain continue onwards in this competition.
If Monday was any indication, they may be calling upon him sometime soon.
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