Soccer-Spain and Croatia brace for another battle in their Euro 2024 opener


FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - Munich Football Arena, Munich, Germany - June 12, 2024 General view inside the stadium REUTERS/Michaela Stache/File Photo

DORTMUND, Germany (Reuters) - Spain and Croatia begin their Euro 2024 campaigns on Saturday with a rematch of last year's nervy UEFA Nations League final as they kick off the action in Group B, which also includes European champions Italy and surprise package Albania.

With memories of a heartbreaking shootout defeat by Spain still fresh in their minds, captain Luka Modric's perennial overachievers seem ready to again challenge the pre-tournament odds in their quest to finally win a major trophy.

After reaching the 2018 World Cup final and making the semi-finals four years later, having fought back to eliminate five-times champions Brazil on penalties at Qatar 2022, the Nations League final loss to Spain was a tough pill to swallow.

It also raised questions of how long the country's 'golden generation' can keep on writing one of the great underdog stories in recent soccer history.

Yet Croatia go into the tournament still relying on a midfield trio of Modric (39), Marcelo Brozovic (31) and Mateo Kovacic (30), who gave a taste of their competitive hunger on Saturday when they handed Portugal a 2-1 defeat in Lisbon.

The result did not reflect the visitors' dominance against Roberto Martinez's side, who were subdued despite being almost at full strength with Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Vitinha and Ruben Dias in the starting 11.

The win gave Zlatko Dalic's side a boost for their Euro 2024 debut against old rivals Spain - one of the few elite teams giant-killers Croatia have regularly failed to slain.

BLAME SPAIN

Spain are partly to blame for Croatia's failure to hit the same World Cup highs at the European Championship in which their best result has been reaching the quarter-finals twice.

It will be the fourth straight Euros in which their paths cross, with Jesus Navas' late goal in the 2012 group stage giving Spain a 1-0 victory and a place in the quarters, while they also won 5-3 after extra time in the last 16 at Euro 2020.

Croatia did, however, beat Spain 2-1 in the group stage at Euro 2016 to top the group ahead of them.

"We played them many times and we know what kind of football Spain like to play, they like possession and lulling the opposition to sleep," Croatia striker Ante Budimir told a press conference on Wednesday.

"They can be very quick and vertical at any time. As a team, they are nice to watch and easy to enjoy. (Midfielder) Rodri is very important for them. They have a lot of young players who can make a difference. A very talented and dangerous team..."

Since taking over the Spain job from Luis Enrique after the 2022 World Cup debacle, when they were knocked out in the last 16 on penalties by surprise package Morocco, manager Luis de la Fuente has been blending the country's young and ascending talent with experienced players very successfully.

Veteran defenders Dani Carvajal and Nacho, with Rodri in the middle and captain Alvaro Morata up front, provide the foundation and balance to allow Spain's skilled youngsters Lamine Yamal, Nico Williams and Pedri to create their magic.

Will that be enough to keep their winning run alive against gritty Croatia?

"We didn't come to Germany on vacation, on a tour trip, we are here to win and we'll do our best to do that," 16-year-old winger Yamal told reporters on Wednesday. "Saturday's game against Croatia is probably the most important of my career.

"They are a very strong team, very difficult to beat because they grow in these competitions. They have a lot of experience and it's clear to us that it's going to be one of the most difficult matches we will face."

(Reporting by Fernando Kallas; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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