A nervous Spain left it late to beat Croatia with a Jesus Navas strike for a 1-0 win that books their place in the quarterfinals as Group C winners and knocks out Croatia.
Despite Italy beating Ireland 2-0 in Monday’s other game, Spain and Croatia resisted the temptation to play out a 2-2 draw that would have sent both teams through, and a cagey game was the result.
With two minutes remaining of normal time, Spain’s breakthrough came.
A perfectly-weighted lobbed pass from Cesc Fabregas left the Croatian offside trap in ruins, leaving Andres Iniesta and Jesus Navas behind the defense.
As Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa charged forward, Iniesta coolly played the ball square to Navas for a simple finish into the empty net.
Spain dominated possession from the off, but were unable to carve out good chances in the face of Croatia’s massed defensive ranks and high-tempo pressing midfield game.
Iniesta’s shot on 12 minutes lacked power and was easily saved by Pletikosa, who diverted Fernando Torres’ effort from a narrow angle behind for a corner 11 minutes later.
Sergio Ramos then missed the target from distance.
At the other end, Danijel Pranjic broke through Spain’s stranglehold on the midfield, but failed to make use of his rare chance to shoot, barely testing Iker Casillas. A minute later, Darijo Srna blazed over.
Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic appealed for a penalty after going down on the edge of the penalty area under a sliding challenge from Ramos, but the referee did not agree.
Around the half-hour mark, David Silva enjoyed a promising position but failed to finish his chances, slipping as he shot on both occasions.
On 35 minutes, Italy took the lead against Ireland, forcing Croatia to score to have any hope of qualifying.
The second half began in the same cautious style, with Spain controlling the ball and the Croatians closing down almost every Spanish move. Combined with both sides’ strong defense at set pieces, few goalscoring opportunities were on offer.
The best chance of the game so far fell to Croatia on 60 minutes as Luka Modric picked up the ball on the counterattack and charged up the field before crossing to Ivan Rakitic who headed at Casillas.
The Spanish goalkeeper pulled off a stunning reflex save to deny Sevilla midfielder Rakitic.
Soon afterwards, Croatia coach Slaven Bilic opted for a pair of attacking substitutions, bringing on Everton striker Nikica Jelavic and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Ivan Perisic.
With 18 minutes on the clock, Bilic’s team came close again when Mario Mandzukic broke down the left from Modric’s pass and fed Perisic, who hit a right-foot volley at Casillas.
After the resulting Croatian corner, Spain produced their best breakaway of the bench, with four attackers taking on two Croatian defenders.
Sergio Busquets received the ball on the edge of the penalty, but opted not to shoot quickly with a clear sight of goal, and was dispossessed.
On 83 minutes, Iniesta picked up the ball in the Croatian box, but was forced wide and only managed a tame shot that Pletikosa turned behind for a corner.
After Navas’ put Spain ahead on 88 minutes, Croatia surged forward but were unable to make a dent in the determined Spanish defense, even when bringing goalkeeper Pletikosa forward for a stoppage-time corner.
On Tuesday, England play Ukraine, while France face Sweden.
Croatia: Stipe Pletikosa, Domagoj Vida (Nikica Jelavic 66), Vedran Corluka, Gordon Schildenfeld, Ivan Strinic, Ognjen Vukojevic (Eduardo 81), Ivan Rakitic, Darijo Srna, Luka Modric, Danijel Pranjic (Ivan Perisic 66) , Mario Mandzukic.
Spain: Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Xavi (Alvaro Negredo 89), Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva (Cesc Fabregas 73), Fernando Torres (Jesus Navas 60), Andres Iniesta.