Having lost at home to Turkey in midweek, Croatia received another shock at the hands of Wales in Cardiff on Sunday, courtesy of two goals from Harry Wilson. With 15 minutes to go, Mario Pasalic netted for the visitors, but it wasn’t enough for his team to avoid a second defeat on the trot in the Euro 2024 qualifications.
Actually, this was the first time in 10 years that Croatia linked a pair of losses in any qualifications, since the process that preceded the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In the meantime, they played in the 2018 World Cup final and in the semifinals in 2022, rightly establishing themselves as one of the best national sides on the planet.
It all makes it even more unusual to see them perform like they did for the entirety of the match against Turkey and a large majority of the one in Cardiff. Completely devoid of attacking ideas – as incredible as it may seem for a team with midfielders of such quality – they failed to create a single goalscoring chance until Pasalic stole in at the far post and headed into the net.
Far too little from a team like Croatia, and their two defeats within three days were absolutely deserved.
Wales, on the other hand, looked like an energetic side which had nothing to lose and everything to win, which is basically what they were going into the game. Aware of their own limitations against such a formidable opponent, they let Croatia have the ball and played very directly when they won it.
Kieffer Moore did a good job upfront, constantly engaging Domagoj Vida and Josko Gvardiol in physical battles, and seeking to open some space for Wilson and David Brooks to exploit.
Rob Page’s men mostly defender deep, though they did occasionally press high and confuse the Croats trying to play out from the back. They dosed their game very well, and hit the visitors exactly the right way, at the right times.
The first half ended goalless, which suited Croatia fine, whatever pride may say. But the first warning of what was about to unfold came in the 21st minute already, when Brooks moved smartly and released Wilson into the space between Vida and Gvardiol, and Vida was forced to take the Fulham winger out. The Croatia centre-back was very fortunate that Gvardiol was a step closer to the goal, otherwise he would’ve likely been sent off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Even before that, Wilson came close from a free-kick and Nico Willams had a low shot from range saved by Dominik Livakovic.
Vida was booked, and that yellow card prevented him from doing something similar when a carbon-copy situation arose just over a minute into the second half. Moore had won a header in the middle of the park and Brooks released Wilson again. Vida was close again, but he simply didn’t dare commit another foul, and Wilson smartly chipped over the onrushing Livakovic to send Wales ahead.
The goal did nothing to help Croatia snap out of their stupor, nor did it deter Wales from attacking, and in the 60th minute, the hosts were attacking down the left. Williams had a cross cleared by Vida and the ball came back his way, and the Nottingham Forest wing-back gave it to substitute Daniel James. James sent it into the box once more, and Wilson again escaped everybody’s attention and headed across into the far corner, leaving Livakovic rooted to the spot again.
Croatia started showing a bit more determination after that, and their first chance came in the 75th minute when Lovro Majer, one of the better players in Dalic’s team on the evening, sent a lobbed pass for Dion Beljo to chase, but the Augsburg striker saw his close-range effort diverted out for a corner.
Interestingly enough, Beljo was slightly offside when Majer lobbed the pass, but the linesman failed to spot it and it wasn’t given, so the corner was actually the best possible outcome of this situation for Croatia. Had Beljo scored, it would’ve been ruled out, and the corner which was given yielded Croatia’s only goal.
Luka Modric took it, Moore got to it on the near post but only managed to flick it across, with Pasalic unmarked and clinical at the far post.
From that point on, it was Croatia’s turn to go for all or nothing, and they attacked fiercely down to the final whistle, but no equalizer was to come. Beljo came close again in the 78th minute, heading a fine Borna Sosa cross wide of the target. He tried again in the fourth minute of stoppage time, but it was too tame to trouble Danny Ward in the Wales goal.
The plot twist
Second to Turkey in the group, Croatia were three points ahead of Wales traveling to Cardiff, and had they justified the favourite role and won, the gap would’ve been stretched to six, probably more than Wales would be able to overcome. The group would’ve probably been all but decided, with Turkey and Croatia set to qualify for the Euros.
As it is, Wales have not only closed the gap completely, but they’ve actually overtaken Croatia in second place, due to having a better head-to-head score after playing a 1-1 draw in Split at the start of the campaign. Nonetheless, Croatia still appear more likely to achieve their goal.
Both teams will face Armenia before the campaign ends, but while Croatia travel to Latvia as well, Wales will face Turkey at home. For Page and his men, that will surely be a chance for another historic triumph.
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