Croatia will be hoping to take advantage of a struggling Portugal side as they clash at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis on Saturday evening.
Although both Croatia and Portugal are now into the round of 16, one set of fans will be confident. The other, not so much. The Vatreni secured top spot in their quartet by pulling off an impressive 2-1 win over Spain, and in doing so, topped their group. Before that match, Croatia had endured a long spell of frustration against La Furia Roja. In fact, the last – and only time – they had beaten them was during a March 1994 friendly.
Furthermore, both Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic were not available due to injury. As a result, Ante Cacic had to field an unfamiliar squad featuring several young players, and on paper, Croatia appeared to be at a huge disadvantage. In addition, Spain were on a 14 match unbeaten run and had not conceded a goal in nearly 700 minutes.
Nikola Kalinic’s cheeky backheel ended that long-standing clean sheet record. And Ivan Perisic, who has been in inspired form, dealt the final blow to prevent Spain from making it a 15th match sans defeat. With four goals and three assists, only Davor Suker (nine goals, one assist) has been more involved than Perisic in goals for Croatia at major tournaments. And the win over Spain means that Cromatia have only lost out of their last nine Euro matches.
By contrast, Fernando Santos’s side barely scraped into the round of 16 with three total points from their group stage campaign. Portugal were given a rude awakening by minnows Iceland, who managed to hold them to a frustrating draw. Despite out-shooting their opponents by 26 shots to four, they were unable to find a breakthrough. As we all know, Cristiano Ronaldo was not impressed and his outburst certainly hasn’t won him more fans in Iceland.
CR7 again found himself in the spotlight during Portugal’s second game against Austria. This time, the Portuguese skipper had a chance to put his side ahead, but shockingly failed to convert his spot-kick. Still, he showed why he’s one of the best in the business and why he’s the focal point for his side in their last group stage match.
Hungary is arguably one of the surprises of this tournament. Most people figured the best they could hope for was third place, and perhaps qualify for the round of 16 thanks to the expanded format. However, they not only qualified, but they did so as group winners. As such, they were not going just to roll over against Portugal, and matched them wit for wit as fans were treated to a very entertaining 3-3 draw. CR7 made history in the process with a brace; this makes him the first man to score at four Euro tournaments.
So, how do they stack up ahead of Saturday’s showdown? Well, both Cacic and Santos have injury and possible suspension concerns. For Croatia, Modric and Mandzukic are still in doubt for this match, whilst Darijo Srna, Ivan Strinic, Milan Badelj, and Perisic are all a booking away from a ban. And for Portugal, midfielder Andre Gomes and defender Raphael Gurreiro will have to pass a late fitness test to determine their availability. Meanwhile, Ricardo Quaresma and not surprisingly, belligerent defender Pepe will need to tread lightly to avoid suspension for the potential quarter-final.
To date, Portugal have played 31 games at Euro tournaments – without winning the trophy. This is the worst result of any team competing this summer. Croatia, for their end, have won eight and drawn two of their last 10 international fixtures – which is the best performance of all sides at Euro 2016. In terms of head to head record, it’s Portugal with the upper hand. Three games, three wins, six goals scored, none conceded, including a 3-0 rout at Euro 1996.
Croatia, of course, will be looking to spoil that on Saturday. Will they do so? Well, Portugal have been far from impressive. And despite what they may say, they are unfortunately very much a one-dimensional, one-man team. If CR7 is on his game, then Croatia could be in for a long 90 minutes. However, shut him down, and it’s game over for Santos’s side.