Spain edge Croatia on penalties to snatch Nations League Trophy

Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon denied Lovro Mayer and Bruno Petkovic from the spot before Carvajal cheekily chipped home to earn La Roja their first trophy since Euro 2012 and break Croatian hearts.

Spain players celebrate their UEFA Nations League glory against Croatia on Sunday, June 18, 2023

Dani Carvajal chipped home a Panenka penalty to win Spain the Nations League on Sunday, with a 5-4 shoot-out victory over Croatia, after a tense match finished 0-0 following extra time.

Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon denied Lovro Mayer and Bruno Petkovic from the spot before Carvajal cheekily chipped home to earn La Roja their first trophy since Euro 2012 and break Croatian hearts.

Zlatko Dalic’s side, runners-up at the World Cup in 2018 and third in 2022 have never won a major trophy and were hoping Nations League success would cap a glittering international career for captain Luka Modric, who played his 166th international game.

The victory is a confidence boost for new Spain coach Luis de la Fuente after heavy criticism in March after a defeat by Scotland in Euro 2024 qualifying. It also avenged their 2021 final defeat by France.

“For us it was a unique opportunity, we went out early in another tournament (at the World Cup in Qatar) and today we had to take advantage,” Real Madrid defender Carvajal told Spanish broadcaster TVE.

“We had confidence with the penalties and it went well, I knew how I was going to shoot it, and I knew I was going to be sixth… I wanted to take it Panenka style and it went well.”

Dalic warned over 25,000 Croatian fans were expected to travel to Rotterdam and they filled the majority of the stadium, De Kuip a sea of red and white checkered squares, save for a modest area of Spanish fans.

The Croatians chanted Modric’s name in the 10th minute, matching his shirt number, a plea for him not to retire from international duty after the tournament, as had been rumoured.

On the pitch Spain made the early running, with Gavi drilling narrowly wide after pressing furiously to win the ball back.

Just when the game started to fall into a slight lull, under the pink haze of smoke from Croatian flares, Spain were nearly caught out by Josip Juranovic’s long ball over the top for Andrej Kramaric.

The striker ran through on Unai Simon’s goal but just as he pulled the trigger, Aymeric Laporte made a superb lunging block.

Despite 14 goals in the three preceeding games, the first half finished goalless, just as in the prior two Nations League finals, won by Portugal and France in 2019 and 2021 respectively.

Spain players celebrate after winning the penalty shoot-out to earn UEFA Nations League glory against Croatia (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD)

Tight and tense

La Roja were unable to muster a shot on target in the first 80 minutes of an extremely tense battle.

Mario Pasalic headed wide before being replaced by Petkovic, who was Croatia’s semi-final star against the Netherlands — to the extent one Croatian newspaper described him as “Bruce Willis in football boots”. It did not prove the case this time.

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Spain sent on their own semi-final match-winner in response, with Joselu replacing Morata, while Ansu Fati also entered the fray.

It was the young Barcelona forward who came closest to scoring in the 90 minutes for either side, with his low strike cleared off the line by the diligent Ivan Perisic.

Croatia appealed in vain for a penalty after Nacho tangled with Borna Sosa, and Spain substitute Dani Olmo, who spent six years with Dinamo Zagreb, hammered over as extra-time continued in the same tight pattern.

With the sides inseperable, the match was decided on penalties.

After Simon denied Mayer, Aymeric Laporte had the chance to earn victory but hit the bar.

Athletic Bilbao stopper Simon flung himself to his right at full stretch to save from Petkovic and set the scene for Carvajal to spark Spanish celebrations.

They became the second country to have won the World Cup, Euros and Nations League, after France in 2021.

“We’re so happy, it was a really tough game and this is so difficult to do,” said Manchester City’s Champions League final goalscorer Rodri, man of the match.

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“This generation promises a lot. We were very strong mentally. There are things to improve, but winning is always good — we have to celebrate.”

Croatia were left with the taste of disappointment yet again, but Dalic said another podium finish was a positive sign.

“We’ve won medals, one after another, that’s great — three medals is history, a really great thing to have achieved,” said Dalic.

“This shows that there is still lots of potential, we can do a lot.”

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