Kane and Croatia provide an apt ending to Spain’s chequered year

After England’s dramatic defeat on Croatia on Sunday afternoon, you’d imagine the likes of Harry Kane and Gareth Southgate are being blamed for Spain’s Nations League failure. However, the culpability seems to lie closer to home and the autopsy has already begun. With two games to go in Group A4, Spain’s fate was in their hands. A home loss to England wouldn’t change that. Win in Croatia and they would progress to next summer’s semi-finals, even a draw wouldn’t have been the end of the world.

Tin Jedvaj, a man who many didn’t expect to start in Zagreb, ended up being the difference. Unlike the drab, laborious and goalless stalemate between Croatia and England in Rijeka, the stadium was alive once more. Spain’s 6-0 thrashing of the 2018 World Cup runners up in Elche in September made way for a pulsating, virtual cup tie that produced a spectacle. A sub-plot submerged once more earlier in the week as Dejan Lovren and Sergio Ramos locked horns again. The Liverpool defender hadn’t forgotten the way Ramos went about his business in Kiev’s Champions League final.

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Hoffenheim’s Andrej Kramaric gave the hosts the lead shortly after half time before Dani Ceballos notched his first international goal to level the scores two minutes later. Ramos’s Real Madrid teammate Luka Modric crossed for Bayer Leverkusen’s Jedvaj to head past David De Gea at the back post as Croatia regained the lead. They needed to win to have any chance of topping the group. But then, the pantomime villain silenced the home crowd when Ramos converted his spot-kick just over 10 minutes from time. Four minutes were added onto the end of a compelling 90 so there was still time for another twist to this extraordinary game to set up an extraordinary scenario.

Another Bundesliga-based Croatian contributed to finding the net in the 93rd minute. Josip Brekalo of Wolfsburg forced De Gea to parry his low effort into the path of Jedvaj and the makeshift full back sent Zagreb into ecstasy. Almost inevitably, Lovren had the last laugh: “I elbowed [Ramos] good. Haha! 3-2! Go ahead and talk now buddy. They are a bunch of p******. Now to beat England and walk out like a boss,” he said after the game. Not many mouths in football can or want to talk like this one. Spain’s chequered tale of a trip to Zagreb will not live long in the memory of most fans back in Madrid or Barcelona or Seville but it will give Luis Enrique sleepless nights.

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As the squad travelled to Gran Canaria for Sunday’s friendly, most Spaniards had their eyes on matters at Wembley as Croatia returned to action to face familiar foes. Only a draw would send Spain through as group winners. Meanwhile, progression and relegation was still possible for both Gareth Southgate and Zlatko Dalic. Andrej Kramaric’s second goal of the week put the visitors in front and forced Southgate into making some changes. One of them popped up with the equaliser 12 minutes from time. The Spanish commentators couldn’t contain their excitement in seeing Jesse Lingard find the net from a yard out. The momentum was firmly with those in all white and any goal would deny Spain a place in the semi-finals.

The game was stretched as both teams looked for a crucial winner but it was Harry Kane who stretched the furthest to meet Ben Chilwell’s cross and find the bottom corner. Croatian frustration was pointed towards Lovren, who had lost Kane as the cross came in. The final whistle blew nine minutes later and confirmed England’s semi-final spot while sealing Croatia’s fate. Spain would have to settle for second and only have themselves to blame. “We expected to be in the Final Four, that’s obvious. After the bad luck and our mistakes we couldn’t be,” Enrique admitted after La Roja had secured a narrow victory over Bosnia at Las Palmas thanks to Brais Méndez’s debut goal.

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And so, a difficult year for Spain ended in more disappointment. From implosion on the eve of the World Cup with Julen Lopetegui’s sacking to penalty woes in Moscow to that disastrous first half against England in Seville. “It could be worse, for sure,” claimed Enrique. “If Bosnia had beaten us then we’d be in a right mess. It could always be worse.” Which is true. But, technically, it couldn’t have gone much worse could it?

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