Spain moved six points clear at the top of their Nations League group on Tuesday after mauling 2018 FIFA World Cup runners-up Croatia 6-0 at the Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero in Elche.
A Saul Niguez header opened the scoring before Marco Asensio belted one in from range and forced an own goal upon Croatia goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic. Rodrigo Moreno made it 4-0 soon after the restart, captain Sergio Ramos headed in a fifth near the hour mark, and his Real Madrid team-mate Isco drove in the sixth.
The result marks Croatia's heaviest-ever defeat and their first time conceding five goals since they lost 5-1 to England in 2009. Zlatko Dalic's side now sit bottom of Group 4 in League A, below England on goal difference.
Lopetegui Deserves Credit for Asensio Returning to Golden Boy Form
It seems almost no surprise given his history of improving Spanish youngsters that Julen Lopetegui should have a hand in restoring Asensio to his best this season, which was on show for all to see in Elche on Tuesday. A display comprising one goal, three assists and one forced own goal saw to that.
Cristiano Ronaldo's departure for Juventus created a gap on Real's flanks, and Lopetegui has left little to interpretation in who he wants to fill it, starting Asensio on the left flank in all three La Liga games so far this season.
Asensio has restored the faith with five assists in those outings, and sportswriter Euan McTear couldn't help but notice the renewed confidence appears to be aiding his international production:
Journalist Ben Hayward more explicitly lauded Lopetegui's hand in helping the 22-year-old, who didn't quite have the successful 2017-18 he might have hoped for after exploding onto the scene the campaign before:
Tuesday's performance reminded us more of the player who was once nominated for the 2016 Golden Boy award and who has previously shown such an affinity for stepping up to the big occasion.
Although there were many others in gleaming form against a vulnerable Croatia, Asensio sparkled brightest and forced his goals at a time when the game was still close-run. ESPN's Richard Martin summed up the kind of one-man-army impact he was having:
However, Spanish football writer David Cartlidge argued another of Real's up-and-comers was the more essential cog:
The evidence seems clear that not only is Asensio set to be an even more vital component for Los Blancos at club level this season, but his importance to Luis Enrique's Spain side also looks set to undergo an upgrade.
Saul the Obvious Candidate to Fill Iniesta's Boots
The round-of-16 exit at the World Cup this summer was a glum result for Spain, not only because it served as a sour note on which Andres Iniesta ended his career, but also because it left more alarms than ever as to who would replace him.
Concerns are not new regarding who will carry the midfield torch left by Iniesta and his old Barcelona team-mate Xavi, but there should no longer be a question that Atletico terrier Saul is the right man to do so.
It takes a special kind of leader to be the man first on the scoresheet, especially as a midfielder, but for the second game in succession, Saul was on hand to get Spain off the mark when they needed it on Tuesday, via Sky Sports Football (UK only):
And fittingly so, it was the kind of goal that the Spain of 10 or so years ago once thrived upon. Italian journalist Tancredi Palmeri noted the long, patient buildup required before Saul popped up on the end of a pinpoint Dani Carvajal cross to finish; it even looked like the kind of goal Iniesta would have bagged himself:
Tancredi Palmeri @tancredipalmeri
The 68 consecutive seconds of ball possession and 19 passes from Spain that lead to Saul goal v Croatia. Great building up, great Luis Enrique, but especially a superior players’ technique. That’s how you build football: teaching to kids to play the balk, not to win games https://t.co/qeSAx7hrO3
Saul levelled after a Marcus Rashford opener in Saturday's 2-1 win over England but was first to the mark on Tuesday. And though he's been moulded in Madrid—Saul spent two years in Real's academy before joining Atletico—he continues to display all the signs that he is this generation's Iniesta.
Twitter user Kyle Newby praised the Spanish grassroots system and its ability to keep producing such magnificent talents:
Against England it was Sergio Busquets and Thiago Alcantara, a defensive force and a creative weapon, who Saul dazzled. Busquets started again on Tuesday, except it was Dani Ceballos who took Thiago's place as the creative linchpin.
There's refinement to be done yet, however—Saul's pass completion of 88 per cent was the lowest of Spain's midfielders, per WhoScored.com—but his ability for grasping the big moment sets him apart from his compatriots.
Croatia's Defensive Deficiencies Will See Them Struggle in Tough Group 4
The hangover effect of a successful World Cup is something of a curse in football, but Croatia paid the price on Tuesday largely down to a selection of key defensive mishaps.
There was little avoiding Saul's opener, the result of near-unstoppable Spanish buildup at its best, but the failure to quickly close down Asensio for the hosts' second put the onus squarely on Dalic's men.
If Croatia were to blame for Asensio's goal, then the reluctance to stop the same star winding up on his left minutes later was criminal, enticing the long-range specialist to unleash one of his most lethal weapons:
Dejan Lovren is Croatia's best option at centre-back but was missing for Tuesday's clash, replaced by Club Brugge defender Matej Mitrovic, 24, who looked out of sorts alongside Domagoj Vida.
Cork City forward Graham Cummins joked the result may have been different were Lovren present:
Next month's meeting with England is now all the more crucial for Croatia if they're to top Group 4, having suffered a major setback in terms of goal difference in Elche.
If The Three Lions are able to expose Croatia's defensive demons as routinely as Spain did, the World Cup runners-up will be looking back on their Russia journey as an all-too-distant memory.
Spain will be in friendly action against Wales when next they're in action on October 11, which is the day before Croatia are set to host England at the Stadion Rujevica in Rijeka.