Croatia produced an emphatic performance to stun the reigning European champions and qualify for the knockout stages with a 3-0 win over Denmark.
Striker Goran Vlaovic was rewarded for his match winning cameo in the opening game with a place in an otherwise unchanged starting 11 here. Croatia lined up in a 3-5-2 with Vlaovic partnering Davor Suker in attack, striker Alen Boksic was left on the bench.
Denmark drafted in Kim Vilfort, scorer of 7 goals in the qualifying rounds, and Michael Schjonberg in place of Mikkel Beck and Jens Risager. Denmark also lined up in a 3-5-2, with brothers Brian and Michael Laudrup spearheading the attack, and Vilfort playing in central midfield.
Croatia started fast and had a chance in the opening minute when right wingback Mario Stanic cut inside before firing over the bar.
Denmark’s first chance came in the 7th minute, when midfielder Henrik Larsen joined the attack and met a Brian Laudrup cross at the back post, only to see his header on goal blocked by the backtracking Aljosa Asanovic.
The Danes received another sight of goal in the 30th minute when Vilfort was set up on the edge of the area, and fired a powerful shot on goal that forced a save from Drazen Ladic.
One minute later the Croatians carved out a chance at the other end, with Suker playing in Vlaovic, but the weak finish was too close to Peter Schmeichel.
The front pair of Suker and Vlaovic worked well together throughout the game. Vlaovic stayed as a high and central option, stretching the Danish backline in behind and keeping the centner backs occupied, allowing Suker to roam free and pick up the ball in a range of dangerous areas to make plays.
In the 38th minute, Croatia appealed for a penalty when Asanovic played Vlaovic in behind and the striker went down in the area. French referee Marc Batta was not fooled though and booked Vlaovic for diving.
The game remained scoreless until halftime, despite Croatia having 54% of the possession and an 8-2 advantage in shots.
Defender Slaven Bilic was a key figure in Croatia’s impressive first half performance. A strong ball winner in defense, the right sided center back also kept the ball well and moved up to create overloads from the back three throughout the game.
Danish coach Richard Moller Nielsen shuffled his pack at half time, bringing on wingback Jacob Laursen for Thomas Helveg.
In the 49th minute Croatia appealed for a penalty again, but referee Batta adjudged there was no contact from Jes Hogh on a falling Asanovic.
It would prove third time lucky though as Croatia were awarded a spot kick in the 54th minute. Suker collected the ball deep and played a through ball in front of Stanic, the wingback got to the ball first and was brought down by a diving Schmiechel. Suker stepped up to calmly dispatch the spot kick low to the goalkeepers right hand side and give Croatia the lead.
Denmark subbed on a striker in response, replacing Vilfort with Beck in the 59th minute.
As Denmark pushed to equalize, a raking diagonal ball from Laursen founds it way to Schjonberg at the back post, but his diving header was saved comfortably by Ladic.
There would be set play chances at either end as the game entered its final quarter. First Robert Prosinecki rolled in a low corner that was dummied well by Stanic, allowing defender Igor Stimac to fire a shot that was sharply saved by Schmeichel.
In response, Denmark midfielder Brian Steen Nielsen sent over a free kick that was headed back across goal, only for a sliding Brian Laudrup to divert it onto the post under pressure from Ladic.
Croatia did finally double their lead in the 81st minute with a slick attacking phase of play. Midfielder Asanovic played in Suker down the right, and his whipped cross was diverted home by a sliding Zvonimir Boban at the back post.
With the game seemingly in hand, the mercurial ability of Suker would showcase itself in the final stages. In the 83rd minute Robert Jarni cleared his lines and Suker showed a great first touch to bring the ball out of the air. The Sevilla forward then turned and tried to lob Schmeichel from just inside the Danish half. The audacious play saw Schmeichel make a recovering save, before the pair exchanged a respectful thumbs up gesture.
That play simply served as a precursor for one of the goals of the tournament in the 90th minute of play. Schmeichel joined the attack for a Danish corner, before finding himself sprinting back as Asanovic found Suker with a magnificent long pass on the counter. Suker took the ball out of his feet with a smooth first touch before lifting a delightful chip over Schmeichel. The Dane’s star goalkeeper looked to the heavens and fell back onto the ground as the ball went in for one of the tournament’s more memorable images.
The win saw Croatia qualify for the knockout stages and all signs pointed to them hitting form after this thoroughly impressive beating of the reigning European champions. Croatia showed quality throughout the team in possession, and Suker announced himself as one of the premier attacking threats in the entire tournament.
Croatia’s final group game would come against Portugal, and the quality displayed by both teams so far in the tournament meant that looked to be a thoroughly entertaining clash between the two favorites to advance to the quarter finals from Group D.
Denmark were left needing a mathematical miracle to qualify going into their final game against Turkey. The 3-0 scoreline meant that Denmark would need Croatia to beat Portugal in their final game to have a chance of progression. Even then, the Danes would need to beat Turkey and overturn a 4 goal differential between the teams in terms of tiebreaker.
54’ CRO Davor Suker PK (Mario Stanic) 1-0
81’ CRO Zvonimir Boban (Davor Suker) 2-0
90’ CRO Davor Suker (Aljosa Asanovic) 3-0
MAN OF THE MATCH
#9 CF Davor Suker (Croatia) – Two goals and an assist from Suker saw him cement himself as a player for all future opponents to be worried about during this tournament. His movement was excellent throughout, and his skill summed up by his audacious chip to round out the 3-0 scoreline.
3: CF Davor Suker – Man of the Match
2: CM Robert Prosinecki – Pulling strings in the heart of midfield throughout the game, Prosinecki was a key figure as the Croatians won the possession battle.
1: CD Slaven Bilic – A tough performance in defense, and again showed quality and confidence, both on the ball and moving into higher positions tocreate overloads in the midfield third.
3: RM Jacob Laursen – A second half substitute, worked hard defensively, and made some contributions going forward to try and spark a struggling Denmark team.
2: GK Peter Schmeichel – Despite conceding three goals, Schmeichel still made a number of good saves and kept the coreline from being even worse.
1: CF Michael Laudrup – A tough day on the attacking end for Denmark, but Laudrup showed some flashes of skills as the Danes huffed and puffed to break down the Croatian backline.