Boasting the quality and experience of Real Madrid and Barcelona stars, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Croatia’s array of midfield talent provides a mirror image to European champions Spain’s army of midfield maestros.
The two face off on Tuesday in a battle to top Euro 2016 Group D and avoid a murderers’ row that could see second place in the group face Italy, France and Germany on route to the final in Paris on July 10.
Inspired by the ageless brilliance of Barca’s Andres Iniesta, far removed from their disastrous showing at the 2014 World Cup after three consecutive major tournament triumphs, Spain have looked back to their old selves in sweeping past Czech Republic and Turkey to already seal their place in the last 16.
Yet, when asked what other sides had impressed him most through two rounds of competition, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque was categorical.
“The rival we have tomorrow, Croatia, is without doubt the best I have seen in this championship,” said the veteran ex-Real Madrid boss on Monday.
The mutual appreciation is easy to understand. Fiercely loyal to a short-passing “tiki-taka” style that has produced the most glorious period in Spanish football history, Spain see more of themselves in Croatia than any other Euro contender.
“They can be nicknamed ‘little Spain’,” said Czech coach Pavel Vrba, ahead of his side’s 2-2 draw against Croatia on Friday. That match threatens to stain what had shaped up to be a hugely promising competition for the Croats.
Cruising with a 2-0 lead midway through the second-half, Croatia collapsed after suffering a double blow.
Fristly, Modric hobbled off with a minor muscle injury that threatens his participation against Spain.
Then Croatian fans threw flares onto the pitch with the score at 2-1, forcing English referee Mark Clattenburg to briefly halt the match. The Czechs equalised with a stoppage time penalty when play resumed.
Modric had given his country a perfect start to Euro 2016 with a sensational volleyed winner to cap a man-of-the-match display to beat Turkey.
“That was the main problem. Our concentration dropped when he (Modric) left the field,” said Croatian coach Ante Cacic.
Modric and Iniesta have continued their stunning form after a La Liga season in which they were the two best midfielders on show as Real won the Champions League and Barcelona a league and Cup double.
“I don’t know if Modric is playing, but he is obviously a great player,” said Barca and Spain defender Gerard Pique, who admitted his clash with Rakitic had been a constant topic of conversation on the Barca training ground in recent months.
“During the season when we knew we would play in the group stage, we were always talking about this game and I hope it will be a great game tomorrow,” added Pique.
“Croatia always try to play attractive football.”
After a difficult start to his Madrid career, Modric’s technical ability and Spanish football have been a marriage made in heaven.
“He is a player with so much quality, I don’t want to burden him with instructions,” said Madrid coach and former legendary playmaker himself Zinedine Zidane.
“To play here in La Liga means a lot because it demands so much of you, especially at Real Madrid or Barcelona in Ivan’s case,” Modric told Spanish daily Marca.
“Every game is very demanding and that always helps a player to improve.”
Spain will be hoping that improvement doesn’t come back to haunt them in Bordeaux as defeat would set up a last 16 clash with old foes Italy.
“Italy are being very Italy and that worries me” said Pique of Antonio Conte’s defensively-minded outfit, who are yet to concede a goal at Euro 2016.