Croatia 1-0 Ukraine
Croatia won a hard-fought victory against Ukraine in an encounter where both teams were content to alternate periods of dominance. Croatia started off on the front foot, with their talented duo of Modric and Rakitic looked to assert their influence over the game. Whenever they lost the ball, they chose to implement a high press, something that helped them create the chance for their first goal.
This came several minutes after their previous best chance - a one-on-one opportunity for Mandzukic - which also came from a pressing action deep inside Ukraine’s half.
While Ukraine had their spells of possession in the first period of play, Croatia entered the break with a thoroughly deserved lead. When the game restarted, Modric and co. looked to be more conservative. They sat deeper, pressed more cautiously, and tried to hit their opponents on the break.
Ukraine used their greater share of the ball decently, as they threatened Croatia’s back-line and created some ok chances. But at the end of the day, Croatia was able to hold onto their lead and come away with a narrow margin of victory.
Madrid’s legendary midfielder turned in a high-quality performance for his national side, demonstrating his impeccable close control, penetrative passing, intelligent space investigation, and underrated defensive ability. Ukraine simply couldn’t live with his sharp twists and turns, as he eluded defenders like a ghost, allowing him to break opposition pressure, fire in crosses, and take shots himself.
Part of this elusiveness was aided by his roaming positional play. In one play, Modric would be the deep-lying playmaker, while in the next, he’d be making an overlapping run down the wing.
But as tantalizing as it was to see Modric making those runs closer to the final third, Croatia looked like a better side when Luka sat deeper, as his deep positioning acted as a counterbalance against Rakitic’s constant forward runs. This balance was also partially a result of Modric’s tempo control when sitting deep. He frequently lulled Ukraine into a stupor, before firing sharp vertical passes through defensive lines to take the opposition by surprise - a role no other midfielder was capable or willing to take on.
Modric’s all-round duties extended into defense, as he pretty much did everything that could be asked of a typical defensive midfielder. He was often seen robbing players of the ball, making clearances, and intercepting passes right near the edge of his box, while being crucial on defense in the other half of the pitch.
While Rakitic often surged forward to press Ukraine’s defenders, Modric’s positional intelligence was key in providing vertical compactness, something that directly resulted in Ukraine’s only goal of the game. With Croatia pressing on the wing, Modric pushed up on his target’s blind-side to mark Ukraine’s deeper passing option. Completely unaware of the threat, the man receiving the pass turned into Modric and lost the ball, which soon ended up in the back of the net only moments later.
Thus, while Kalinic will take the plaudits for his excellent strike, the biggest influence on Croatia’s victory was Luka Modric.
Kovacic came on for Rakitic in the 79th minute and made little impact on the game. Due to Croatia’s defensive posture at the time, he was only able to showcase a couple of bursting runs that led to nothing. Aside from that, he added a decent amount of defensive energy to help his team close out the game, but this isn’t a performance to judge the Madrid starlet by.
Spain 4-1 Israel
Spain beat Israel 4-1 in a what turned out to be a very comfortable match. Spain dominated right from the off and the quartet of Busquests-Iniesta-Thiago-D.Silva combined nicely to keep the ball.
Silva drifted from his position on the left wing to the centre and helped create space for Alba to run into. However, his deliveries were not up to his expected standards.
Spain created several great chances and they converted four of them. Their defence was untested and Israel only managed to create some chances after a few individual errors. Their goal was scored after a nicely rehearsed set-piece.
Israel didn’t exactly threaten Spain, meaning Ramos wasn’t really tested defensively. Nevertheless, he was solid overall. He stepped up when it was necessary and nicely covered for the always-venturing Alba - a role he’s very familiar with at Real Madrid.
On offense, Ramos showcased his wide range of passing ability. His cross-field passes to Carvajal on the right-wing were especially important in creating chances.
Sergio was eager to get his goal and in truth he wasn’t far away from scoring. He did have a few chances from set-pieces and one free kick attempt from the left (which hit the wall).
At first Dani was a bit cut off from the rest of the team, but it was mostly due to Vitolo on the right wing, who couldn’t impose himself on the game. As a result, most of the game went through Silva and Iniesta on the left side. However as the game progressed, Dani got more involved. He provided nice width on the right side and his deliveries into the box were spot on. He created several chances, which Costa and Silva failed to convert.
Isco came on in the 71st minute of the game for Iniesta. And right from the start he displayed his amazing technique and first touch.
He worked hard in the midfield and his effort was duly rewarded later on. He scored the fourth goal and it was a nice example of his overall performance. He won the ball and started the counter attack, before receiving the ball in the box and finishing it with his trademark near-post shot.
Ireland 0-0 Wales
This match was a tale of two halves. The first was pretty much the epitome of why I can’t stand International breaks. Two sides, neither of which have spent much time together, sitting back in a non-pressure match just kicking the ball around.
I’d say both sides were cagey the first half, but stand-offish and even bored-looking would be more accurate. Ireland was perfectly content to sit back with very little pressure and let Wales dominate possession. Wales with the ball spent most of it in the middle third, seldom looking to push forward.
Not until a few minutes from half time did things start to change, and that only because Ireland started to throw a few elbows.
The second half could not have been more different.
Wales started to buck up and looked a bit more lively, but started to match Ireland’s rough play as the second half went on.
Then it all started to go quite pear-shaped with a series of nasty challenges, hands down the worst of which was the nightmarish tackle from Neil Taylor on Everton’s Seamus Colman which resulted in a broken leg. Taylor was rightfully shown red and Ireland began to have some chances. Not any good ones in spite of countless crosses, corners and many balls that actually dropped in the 6 yard box. I don’t recall a single shot on goal from all of that.
This match was downright ugly and Wales have a much tougher road to World Cup qualification.
Bale was awfully disinterested in the first half. He seemed to loaf about with the rest of the squad and aside from a decent cross, didn’t accomplish much.
Bale woke up immediately after half time and remembered how thrilling the feeling is to actually shoot on goal. He put Wales first on-target shot with a free kick from around 25 yards that cleared the wall but was straight at Ireland keeper, Randolph.
Minutes later, he cut back from the left and just missed wide.
Wales pushed forward a couple of times and Bale just barely missed another vintage screamer, but was then extremely fortunate for not accumulating a second yellow after a sliding attack nowhere near the ball.
All in all, Bale didn’t get injured and we got to see a couple vintage shots, including this beaute...
But he’s still nowhere near full match fitness and couldn’t outrun any of his marks.
Player rating - 6/10