It was always going to take a combination of team spirit, mental toughness, tenacity and a good dollop of sheer good fortune for Northern Ireland to get anything out of their game against Germany; while the World Champions may not be at quite the same level as they were in Brazil two years ago; they are nonetheless a high quality side.
As it turned out, despite almost incessant pressure, especially in the first half, Northern Ireland kept the deficit to just the one goal by Gomes, thanks largely to save after save by Michael McGovern in their goal and some resolute, if slightly desperate, defending. They were unable to manufacture much in the way of chances themselves but ultimately they secured progression to the knockout stages by keeping the score down.
Their fans were once again utterly amazing and didn’t stop for the whole game, it can only be imagined what the party was like in Paris once the result of the Czech Republic – Turkey game was confirmed! Having spent a good few days amongst the Northern Irish fans in Nice, I am simply over the moon for them. They will now face either Wales or France in the Round of 16; I suspect they might fancy staying in Paris and a crack at the Welsh.
The other game in Group C saw Poland secure their progression in second place thanks to a 1-0 win over a highly disappointing Ukraine side; there will be concern that Lewandowski, like most of the top strikers at the tournament, has yet to find the net, but their match against Switzerland in the first of the knockout games looks to be a good match-up between two fairly equal sides.
With five changes to the team and the absence of two of their best players in Modric and Mandzukic, there can’t have been too many people that fancied Croatia’s chances against Spain; especially after the way that the holders had dispatched Turkey in impressive fashion in their previous match. The considered opinion is that in order to have any chance against Del Bosque’s side you need to unsettle them and the only way to do that is to press them intensely and consistently and disrupt their passing rhythm as Holland and Chile had done in Brazil; it is however much easier said than done and the risk is that even a momentary drop in intensity will see them slice through you.
Croatia started by pressing Spain high up the pitch but found themselves a goal down after only 6 minutes after a slick passing move saw Fabregas set up Morata for a tap in. I don’t think I was alone in anticipating another Spanish masterclass and danger for Croatia. However Caric’s team stuck to their game plan, maintained their intensity and started to get a foothold in the game. They could have been level through Rakitic’s clever lob after a woeful clearance by De Gea, which somehow stayed out after clipping the bar, the post and bouncing on the goal-line. They did however get themselves back into the game on the stroke of half-time when Perisic worked space for himself on the left before playing in a delightful chip that Kalinic back-heeled home on the volley, it was a cute little finish and set up the second half nicely.
The second half saw Croatia stay compact and tight and even Spain, the masters of possession football, found it difficult to break them down; they did however continue to threaten on the counter which seemed to unsettle the Spanish defence.
Spain did however have a glorious chance to settle the match when they were awarded a penalty when Silva went down easily in the area; minutes after Pjaca had been denied a similarly dubious one at the other end. Strangely, despite the proliferation of technical players in the Spanish team, it was centre back Ramos who stepped up to take it only to be denied by Subasic, admittedly the keeper had moved significantly forward during the run-up.
The save seemed to fire the Croatians with even more belief and with just two minutes remaining they broke fully 80 yards with two passes and Perisic fired past De Gea at his near post to seal a stunning victory. The surprise win not only changed the shape of the group with Croatia finishing top and condemning Spain to second place, but it may also have turned the tournament upside down. Spain will now face Italy in the round of the 16 in the half of the draw that also involves Germany, France and England; the Croatians join Belgium, Wales, Poland and Switzerland on the other side.
In the other game in the group, Turkey beat the Czech Republic 2-0 which not only secured Northern Ireland’s qualification and but gave the Turks themselves a chance of going through.