With one sweeping half-volley effort off his left foot, Alvaro Morata silenced his critics, sending Spain to the quarterfinals of Euro 2020 with the game-winning goal in the 101st minute in a 5-3 result over Croatia on Monday afternoon in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The struggling Spanish striker, who has had a bevy of missed opportunities at the competition including a missed penalty on Wednesday against Slovakia, had suffered abuse from fans that sent death threats to him and his family.
Yet in crunch time, he was as cool as ever; controlling the ball off a cross on the left of the Croatia box before cannoning the chance into the roof of the net.
For good measure, Mikel Oyarzabal added a fifth for Spain two minutes later to put the three-time champions out of sight.
Croatia forced extra time with a frantic comeback — maintaining the never-say-die persona that saw it become World Cup finalists in 2018. It overturned a 3-1 deficit with a pair of goals in the 85th and the second minute of second-half stoppage time from Mislav Orsic and Mario Pasalic.
It somehow overshadowed one of the biggest gaffes you’ll see at a major tournament like the Euros.
From the midfield, Barcelona midfielder Pedri sent a long back pass toward Spain’s goalkeeper, Unai Simon, who simply flubbed it. The ball glanced off the keeper’s side foot and rolled into the corner of the net to put Croatia ahead in the 20th minute despite being outshot 4-0 by Spain at that point.
The favorites were made to feel the shock of that miscue even more after Morata had a free header in front of Croatia’s goal that he sent parallel to the goal rather than toward it.
It was the ninth own goal of Euro 2020 — an incomprehensible number considering the first 15 tournaments dating back to its start in 1960 only saw nine own goals combined.
Spain found an answer in the 38th minute to provide some relief and to erase Simon’s own goal.
Sustained pressure and an ensuing scramble around the Croatian box saw the ball worked to PSG man Pablo Sarabia, who cannoned a shot through traffic, off the head of keeper Dominik Livakovic, and into the back of the net.
As Croatia continued to bend under Spanish pressure, it cracked in the 57th minute when Cesar Azpilicueta sent home an open header at the far post from a cross on the left wing. It was his first goal for Spain — a rare event for a left-back that has scored just nine times for his club team, Chelsea, in 429 appearances.
Croatia found its attacking panache as it had no other option, working a few promising chances near the Spain goal. Their finishing boots, however, were not up to the task as Simon was left to make simple saves from Ante Rebic and Josko Gvardiol in the 66th and 67th minutes.
The wheels fell off for Croatia in the 77th minute, though, as the left-back Gvardiol was on the opposite side of the pitch having a drink of water when a quick Spanish free-kick played Ferran Torres down that left side. He easily got past a scrambling Gvardiol — who fell down to make matters worse — before slotting a simple left-footed finish into the bottom-left corner of the goal to put Spain seemingly in the clear.
But things got nervy for Spain in the 85th minute when Croatia rushed the Spanish net and after a few chances right at the doorstep that were blocked away, Orsic stuffed it just over the line to get his side back within one.
In the second minute of extra time, it was Spain’s turn for its defense to fall asleep as Croatia drew level. Pasalic was able to complete a run into the box uncovered, allowing him to easily get on the end of a cross to power past Simon and force extra time.
Simon came up big for Spain in the 96th minute when he made a sprawling arm save on Andrej Kramaric’s shot from the middle of the box.
Just a minute later, Duje Caleta-Car saved the Croatians when he blocked a dangerous chance for Dani Olmo.
This first appeared on AMNY.com