1996 European Championships
Group D – Match Round 3
Croatia 0 – 3 Portugal
The City Ground, Nottingham
Wednesday 19th June 1996
By Stewart Flaherty (@stewartflaherty)
Portugal topped Group D with an emphatic 3-0 win over Croatia to round out group play. Despite the heavy defeat, Croatia also qualified for the last eight having secured progression with 2 wins from their prior games.
Coach Antonio Oliveira lined up Portugal in a 4-5-1 formation with star duo Rui Costa and Luis Figo in the heart of midfield. Joao Pinto led the attack as a lone forward with Ricardo Sa Pinto deployed in a wide right role. While firmly in the driving seat for a place in the last eight, Portugal did know that a defeat here could see them eliminated if Denmark could overturn a four goal advantage in goal differential.
With qualification already secured, Croatia coach Miroslav Blazevic made wholesale changes to his team, benching impact players Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Aljosa Asanovic, Igor Stimac and goalkeeper Drazen Ladic.
Slaven Bilic was left to lead a reserve back line in a 3-5-2 formation, and Robert Prosinecki kept his place in the heart of midfield. Goran Vlaovic led the attack alongside Nikola Jurcevic, who was making his first tournament start.
Portugal flew out of the gate and took only four minutes to take the lead. Right back Secretario joined the attack, playing a give and go with Joao Pinto before sending over a cross that was met by a neat one touch finish from Figo at the back post. An important aspect of the goal was the movement of Sa Pinto, who ran past the near post, dragging away the defenders and leaving Figo wide open at the back post to score.
The opening stages continued to be dominated by Portugal and in the 10th minute Prosinecki committed a costly foul on Portugal defender Fernando Couto. The challenge saw Prosinecki booked and subsequently suspended for the quarter-final against Germany. Croatia coach Blazevic will no doubt have been frustrated that on a day where he rested so many, arguably his most influential midfielder to date would be suspended for a needless foul.
Croatia produced their first clear cut chance in the 20th minute. Prosinecki released wingback Robert Jarni down the left flank and the resulting cross found Vlaovic, who was denied by a good save from Vitor Baia.
The Portugal lead was doubled from a set play in the 32nd minute, when Couto got his head to a corner, flicking it to Sa Pinto who acrobatically volleyed it back across the face of goal. Joao Pinto collected and calmly took a touch before finishing into the bottom corner.
While Croatia looked very different to their prior games, Portugal continued to show the same fluid movement and quality possession that had become a staple of their tournament so far. The Portuguese were dominant throughout the majority of the first half, with the lion’s share of possession and quality runs forward to join the attack, particularly from Figo, Costa and Oceano.
Sporting Lisbon midfielder Oceano was putting in comfortably his best performance of the tournament so far, breaking up multiple Croatian attacks while also contributing on the attackign end.
Four minutes before halftime, Croatia had a chance to get back into the game when Nikola Jurcevic span on the edge of the penalty area and shot, but was denied by a diving stop from Baia.
Blazevic used all three of his allowed substitutions during the interval replacing Mladen Mladenovic, Prosinecki and Igor Pamic with Suker, Asanovic and Boban. Portugal made a change of their own, replacing right winger Sa Pinto with Domingos.
The substitutions, and likely some choice words from Blazevic did see Croatia improve in the opening stages of the second half. Their first chance after the interval came in the 51st minute when Jurcevic carried the ball forward before firing wide from the edge of the area.
Portugal carved out a chance of their own six minutes later, when the impressive Oceano turned over Boban in the attacking third, and released Joao Pinto. Striker Pinto crossed into the area where the ball was headed off target by a wide open Domingos. Open runners getting on the end of crosses was an issue throughout the game for a struggling Croatian backline.
Croatia continued to fight and in the 78th minute midfielder Asanovic cut inside before having his shot saved by Baia, but the game would be ended as a contest soon after.
In the 82nd minute, Croatia would concede a goal that summed up the disastrous performance of their defense throughout this game. On the ball under no pressure, center back Dubravko Pavlicic smashed a pass that hit teammate Bilic in the back, falling for Domingos to race away and score.
Portugal made an error of their own soon after, when a Couto pass out of defense was intercepted by Asanovic, who advanced on goal before firing wide.
The game’s final play came when Jarni played a slick one-two on the edge of the area, but his shot glanced the top of the crossbar and over.
Portugal finished group play in emphatic fashion and would now gear up for a quarter final clash against the Czech Republic. Based on performances in the tournament so far, Portugal would likely go into the game as slight favorites over a Czech team that only escaped elimination courtesy of an 88th minute Vladimir Smicer equalizer against Russia.
Oliveira would have a decision to make at right back going into the knockout stages. Paulinho Santos had started in their first two wins before being suspended for this game. Secretario had stepped in here and produced a good performance, including setting up the first goal for Figo.
Croatia coach Blazevic had said before the game he believed his team matched up well against Germany, a belief that may have played a role in him weakening his team with so many changes for this fixture. It seemed a bold statement, but Croatia would now have a chance to back it up against a German team who did not lose a game, or concede a goal in the process of topping Group C.
The suspension of Prosinecki would weaken the Croatian midfield, and pressure would be put on his likely replacement of Pamic or Mladenovic to fill his shoes in the heart of midfield.
4’ POR Luis Figo (Secretario) 1-0
33’ POR Joao Pinto (Ricardo Sa Pinto) 2-0
82’ POR Domingoa (unassisted) 3-0
MAN OF THE MATCH
CM Oceano (Portugal) – The athletic midfielder produced a dominant performance in the Portuguese engine room. Excellent ball pressure constantly harried the Croatians, and his runs forward into the attack caused consistent overloads.
3: CM Oceano – Man of the Match.
2: CM Luis Figo – Yet another impressive performance full of quality movement and skilled passing in the midfield. Figo also burst forward to great effect, opening the scoring in the fourth minute.
1: CF Joao Pinto – The energetic striker showed good movement throughout the game and opened his account for the tournament with his first half strike.
3: CM Aljosa Asanovic – Introduced as a substitute after a disastrous first half for Croatia, Asanovic played well and fought hard attempting to give his team a foothold in the game.
2: CM Robert Prosinecki – Found space to get on the ball and connect passes for the Croatians before being withdrawn at the half.
1: CF Nikola Jurcevic – A hard working performance from the forward, never giving up the fight and being involved in most attacks Croatia did have.