The winner of this last-16 tie will play either Switzerland or Portugal in the Euro 2016 quarter-final.
Both sides have the opportunity to stamp some authority on the competition where they are each considered among the outsiders to win the tournament. Seeded onto the more favorable side of the Euro 2016 knockouts, the two sides here will fancy their chances at making a run to the final.
Croatia shocked us all by managing to finish top of Group D with a victory over Spain in the third and final group game and one of the games of the tournament so far. Previously a win against Turkey and a draw against Czech Republic, despite being two goals to the good, did little to determine whether Croatia can be considered as serious Euro 2016 contenders.
Ante Cacic’s men did what they needed to do in their opening game by recording a solid and convincing 1-0 over Turkey where Luka Modric’s sublime volley separated the two sides in Paris. Against Czech Republic however it was a slightly different story.
After racing to a 2-0 lead through goals from Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic, Kockasti crumbled to concede two goals in the final 15 minutes. A 93rd minute penalty put the final nail in the coffin. At 2-1, crowd trouble that saw the visiting Croatian fans throw flares and fireworks onto the pitch appeared to distract the Croatia players and certainly did not help their attempts to hang onto their slender lead.
In the third and final game of Group D we once again saw the very good and very bad of Croatia against Spain. The World Cup 1998 semi-finalist found themselves behind within 10 minutes but had somehow clawed back into the contest with a breakaway-equalizer moments before half-time from Nikola Kalinic.
With 18 minutes remaining Spain were awarded a dubious penalty after David Silva was brought down. Spain captain Sergio Ramos stepped up and missed despite Croatia stopper Daniel Subasic appearing to lunge from his line well before the spot kick had been taken. With minutes left on the clock another incisive counter attack saw Ivan Perisic grab his second of the tournament when he beat David de Gea at his near post to make it 2-1 to Croatia.
Portugal meanwhile have had a much more difficult tournament so far. They secured progression to the knockout stage in 3rd place in Group F after an end-to-end six-goal thriller with group winners Hungary. After Fernando Santos’ men had gone behind three times and equalized three time against the Hungarians, it appeared Seleccao da Quinas had done enough to set up a last-16 tie with England. However, as the players made their way off the pitch it emerged Iceland had scored the latest of winners against Austria meaning Portugal had finished 3rd.
Portugal have looked unsure of themselves in Euro 2016 so far. Nani gave his side the lead in their opening game against Iceland, only to see it cancelled out in the second half by a far more impressive Iceland. After a 0-0 draw with Austria it began to look like Cristiano Ronaldo is appearing in his own side show, and not a very good one at that.
First, Portugal’s star man criticized Icelandic celebrations after the 1-1 draw and was then left red faced when he missed a penalty during the 0-0 stalemate with Austria in the game following. To add to growing annoyance, in the same game he also had a goal narrowly ruled out for off side. Ronaldo also made the headlines when in the run-up to the Hungary game he threw a reporters microphone into a lake when pursued for an interview.
The two sides last met in June 2013 in a friendly where Portugal ran out 1-0 winners. For the superstitious among us it is important to note that Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winner that day.
In total the side have met three times in history with Portugal winning all three. The first time the sides met was at Euro 1996 in the group stage. A Croatia side with Salven Bilic at the heart of it’s defense was beaten 3-0 with goals from Luis Figo, Joao Vieria Pinto and Oliveira Domingos.
Ante Cacic will undoubtedly be hoping for the swift return of their playmaker and talisman Luka Modric. In the 2-1 victory against Spain though he was not needed. While many thought his Real Madrid team mate Mateo Kovacic would step into the side, it was actually 20-year-old Marko Rog who stepped up to the plate and did a fantastic job.
Croatia made changes to their defense for the Spain clash. Ivan Strinic, who is on a booking, was swapped for Sassuolo’s Sime Vrsaljko, while Tin Jedvaj was given a run out in place of Domagoj Vida. Croatia are likely to return to the same side which beat Turkey in their opening game, pending the fitness of Luka Modric.
Nikola Kalinic started and scored versus Spain but could return to the bench in place of the returning and rested Mario Madzukic.
Kockasti don’t have any suspensions but must be wary as six of they players that started the opening game against Turkey are on bookings, Rog and Vrsaljko also both went into the referee’s book against the Spanish as well. Key players Dario Srna, Maarcelo Brozovic and Milan Badelj are all one booking away from missing the next game.
After the victory over Spain that will go down in history, coach Ante Cacic was quick to hail the achievement of his players while aiming a sly jab at the misbehavior of the Croatia support.
“This team is like our nation,” he said. “The players have shown how to represent your country and how to behave.”
Furthermore, Cacic rested a few players against La Roja and now has a full strength squad to pick from.
“I wanted to play the next match with really fresh players,” Cacic said. “It’s a huge achievement, and now we can be even more self-confident.”
After the win over Spain, midfielder Ivan Rakitic, a Barcelona club mate of several of the Spanish players, said it was a victory for effort over quality.
“When you play against the best team in the world, you have to play like this,” he said.
“We deserve it. Not always quality wins but effort does.I prefer to play in the same team as (Andres) Iniesta, (Sergio) Busquets and (Jordi) Alba than against them.”
Adding: “I think we can start dreaming. Now I have to explain a few things to my (Spanish) wife.”
Predicted Line Up: Subasic; Srna, Corluka, Vida, Strinic; Modric, Badelj, Brozovic, Rakitic, Perisic; Mandzukic.
Evidently Fernando Santos’ men have been waiting for captain Cristiano Ronaldo to come up with the goods. His two goals against Hungary gave the impression of a much improved Portugal.
Andre Gomes passed a late fitness test and completed 60 minutes while Rahpael Guerreiro was out with injury and was replaced by Eliseu, both should now be fit to face Croatia.
Ricardo Quaresma has been in and out the side at Euro 2016 so far and will probably start this one among the substitutes, despite delivering an inch perfect cross for Portugal’s third against Hungary. Sporting Lisbon’s Joao Mario is likely to get the nod ahead of the Besiktas winger.
Danilo Pereira started in Portugal’s tournament opener but since the 1-1 draw with Iceland William Carvalho has been preferred as Joao Moutinho’s central midfield partner. Meanwhile Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo both have two goals apiece at Euro 2016 and are set to lead the attack.
Portugal boss Fernando Santos was naturally delighted that his star player and captain was back among the goals against Hungary and said his brace will be a massive lift.
“This is what Cristiano is all about, because he’s a winner and a scorer, he feeds on goals,” Santos said. “This will have increased his confidence levels. He’s a confident player anyway, but this will have boosted him for the next game against Croatia.”
Furthermore, Santos is wary of their opponents in the next round, especially after they defeated Spain.
“Croatia are one of the sharks, we had been trying to avoid them,” the Portugal manager said. “They placed first in a group with Spain, which tells you all you need to know about them.
“The most important thing is that we are through to the knockout stage. We had wanted to finish in first place, to move on, but not like this.”
Predicted Line Up: Rui Patricio; Vierinha, Pepe, R. Carvalho, Guerreiro; Mario, W. Carvalho, Moutinho, Gomes; Nani, Ronaldo.