GDANSK, Poland (AFP) – Defending champions Spain qualified for the Euro 2012 quarter-finals after replacement Jesus Navas hit the late winner in their nervy 1-0 victory over Croatia, who bowed out on Monday.
Spain qualify as Group C winners and will now play their quarter-final in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Saturday against the Group D runner-up, while Italy finish second thanks to their 2-0 win over Ireland in Poznan.
Having come on for Fernando Torres in the second-half, Navas hit the 88th-minute winner after Xavi Hernandez chipped the Croatian defence and Andres Iniesta provided the final pass.
“It was a difficult game for us, we had a high percentage of ball possession and we proved we can control the game,” said Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque.
“We were fighting for a victory, not a draw, and we have taken a step forward here by qualifying, this is motivation for the quarter-finals.
“The team played well, even though things didn’t go according to plan.
“We have no preference whether it is France, England or Ukraine, we have to be ready to take whatever comes.”
The World Cup winners top the group with seven points after their opening draw with Italy and 4-0 rout of Ireland, while there was heartbreak for Slaven Bilic’s Croatia.
“I want to congratulate Spain, but most of all, also my players,” said the former West Ham and Everton defender.
“We had the best chances in the game and when you play against the world champions, you must take advantage of those opportunities.”
Del Bosque named an unchanged team, while Bilic abandoned the 4-4-2 formation he used in the opening win over Ireland and the draw with Italy for a 4-2-3-1 formation.
As they had done in Thursday’s hammering of Ireland here, Spain started with almost 80 percent ball possession, which never dropped below 60, as Croatia seemed content to hit long balls down to lone striker Mario Mandzukic.
On a rare early forage into the Spanish half, Danijel Pranjic fired a shot to the left of Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who dealt with the left-footed shot comfortably on 25 minutes.
Croatia defender Vedran Corluka was booked for dissent soon after as German referee Wolfgang Stark chose not to award a penalty after Spain’s Sergio Ramos sliding tackle caught Mandzukic’s ankle.
It remained goalless at the break and news of Italy’s lead against Ireland raised the tension inside the Gdansk stadium as the second half wore on.
Croatia’s best chance came approaching the hour mark when Luka Modric’s cross was met by Ivan Rakitic, but Casillas parried away his header.
After a fairly ineffective first 60 minutes, Torres made way for Navas in the three-man forward line, but both sides squandered chances.
With time almost up, the decisive blow came when Hernandez floated his pass over the defence for his Barcelona team-mate Iniesta to draw Croatia’s goalkeeper Stipe Pleitkosa and then feed Navas who made no mistake.
There could be more bad news for Croatia on Tuesday when UEFA are expected to make a ruling over alleged racist chants from Croat fans directed towards Italy striker Mario Balotelli in last week’s 1-1 draw.
A stiff penalty is expected given UEFA president Michel Platini’s previous assertions that European football’s governing body has a “zero tolerance” on the issue.
European football’s governing body has already imposed the threat of a six-point reduction on Russia’s next European championship qualifying campaign, after missiles and fireworks were thrown at their opening Group A match against the Czech Republic on June 8.