Chelsea team-mates Cesar Azpilicueta and Mateo Kovacic went head-to-head in Copenhagen, with only one able to advance to the last eight at Euro 2020.
Azpilicueta was a surprise inclusion in Luis Enrique’s tournament squad, having not played for La Roja since November 2018 prior to his start against Slovakia in their final group game last week.
Having impressed in that 5-0 thumping to secure Spain a spot in the last 16, the Blues skipper retained his place at right-back in a side also featuring former Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata. On the opposite team, Kovacic made his fifth consecutive start at the tournament in Croatia’s three-man midfield.
A meeting between two group runners-up, questions had been asked of both these sides in the build-up, particularly of Spain’s clinical edge in front of goal. Yet a five-goal salvo in the Danish capital in a Euros classic, coming from behind and then winning the tie again in extra-time, took them to 10 in the past two matches, with Azpilicueta a surprisingly regular feature of their attacks.
The 31-year-old had five touches inside the opposition box throughout the game, an early one coming with his head from a right-sided free-kick curled in dangerously. Yet the delivery was a little behind the defender and his effort was comfortable for Dominik Livakovic, the Croatia keeper.
Despite a strong start, Spain found themselves 1-0 down after 20 minutes in the most bizarre of circumstances as Barcelona midfielder Pedri fired a back pass to Unai Simon and the ball bounced inexplicably over the goalkeeper’s outstretched boot. It was the furthest distance an own goal has been scored in Euros history and briefly rattled the Spaniards from their early flow.
Kovacic demonstrated his typically classy touches in midfield, bursting forward with the ball whenever Croatia were able to get forward, and hit one rising strike narrowly over as his side gained the initiative after the breakthrough.
Down the other end, Azpilicueta got on the end of an effort across goal from fellow full-back Jose Gaya but couldn’t direct the ball on target. Yet within seconds, Spain were level as Pablo Sarabia bundled in Gaya’s saved drive on the rebound.
Kovacic almost got an assist of his own right before half-time with a defence-splitting pass fizzed into the path of Ante Rebic, but Simon was quick off his line to snuff out the threat.
Azpilicueta’s moment arrived just before the hour mark when he headed in the first goal of his international career to hand his side the lead. Advancing once again into the six-yard box, he guided Ferran Torres’ cross in from close range and became Spain’s oldest ever goalscorer at a European Championship in the process.
There was no sign of weariness in the right-back’s legs as the game seemingly moved towards its conclusion and Spanish celebrations intensified when Torres made it 3-1 with a smart finish underneath the goalkeeper from the right. Kovacic was withdrawn in the aftermath, replaced by former Chelsea midfielder Mario Pasalic as part of a double substitution, and the changes handed Croatia fresh impetus, leading to a grandstand finish.
They halved the deficit after 85 minutes when Mislav Orsic squirmed the ball over the line despite the best efforts of Azpilicueta and then forced extra-time with an equaliser two minutes into stoppage time, Pasalic arriving right on cue to head in Orsic’s brilliant inswinging cross.
Croatia had the momentum but Spain regrouped in the short interval before the additional half hour and two goals in quick succession after the restart, from Morata and Mikel Oyarzabal, finally settled a pulsating contest.
It means 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia exit the tournament and Azpilicueta’s Spain head through to the quarter-finals, where they will face either France or Switzerland next.